The Muslim Students Association of Columbia University (MSA CU) is among the oldest of the affiliated campus chapters of the national MSA. With a membership consisting of both undergraduate and graduate students, MSA CU states that its mission is to “organize a variety of events” — such as interfaith community service projects, weekly Friday prayers, and halaqas designed to teach theology — that “promote and address issues that are relevant to our community” while “educat[ing] our community about the various aspects of Islam.”
In February 2006, MSA CU was one of 52 Muslim organizations that signed a press release denouncing a Danish newspaper’s then-recent publication of a series of cartoons lampooning the founder of Islam as a terrorist. Asserting that “freedom of expression is not absolute,” the press release “condemn[ed] strongly the continuous insults and humiliation against our Prophet Muhammad.” Fellow signatories included the American Muslim Association of North America, the MSAs of several universities, and a number of Islamic societies, Muslim centers, and mosques. Notably, the petition did not condemn the wave of protests and deadly riots which Muslims across the globe had launched in reaction to the cartoons.
At the invitation of MSA CU, the Holocaust-denying professor Norman Finkelstein (of DePaul University) came to Columbia to deliver a March 2006 speech titled “Israel and Palestine: Misuse of Anti-Semitism, Abuse of History.” Finkelstein asserted that “regardless of intent, Israel is in effect guilty of state terrorism,” and he alleged that the “only difference between Israel terrorism and Hamas terrorism is that Israeli terrorism is three times as lethal.” The professor also criticized Columbia University president Lee Bollinger for his refusal to support an anti-Israel divestment campaign or to depict Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid.” Accusing Bollinger of “intellectual terrorism,” Finkelstein stated: “I think it’s a sorry truth when the president of … [Columbia] subordinates the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of fundraising.” Co-sponsors of Finkelstein’s appearance included the Arab Students Association, the International Socialist Organization, the Organization of Pakistani Students, and the United Students of Color Council.
In October 2006, MSA CU members participated in a raucous demonstration protesting a Columbia speaking appearance by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project which opposed illegal immigration across America’s southern border. After Gilchrist took the microphone, more than 20 students stormed the stage; two of them unfurled a banner reading, “No human being is illegal.”
At a November 2006 Columbia University event titled “From Hate to Love,” Walid Shoebat, a former Palestinian terrorist who had since renounced the ideology of jihad, spoke out against Islamic terrorism. Omar Siddiqi, then-president of MSA CU, chose not to attend the Shoebat speech because, as he put it, people like Shoebat “deprave and dehumanize groups.”
In April 2009, MSA CU co-sponsored an event hosted by KashmirCorps, a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is “to improve the welfare of Kashmiri society through service and research.” The main sponsor and keynote speaker of the event was Farooq Kathwari, the chairman and president of Ethan Allen Interiors, Inc. Kathwari, whose son Irfan had been killed in Afghanistan while waging jihad against the Russians in 1992, had spoken at the 2004 national conference of the Islamic Society of North America.
In April 2010, MSA CU co-sponsored a “Call to Action Day” event honoring and supporting the convicted cop-killer and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Other co-sponsors included the African Diaspora Literary Society, the Arab Student Association at SIPA (School of International & Public Affairs), the Black and Latino Student Caucus at the School of Public Health, the Black Students Organization, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, the Intercultural House, and the Latin United Community Housing Association. One of the guest speakers at this gathering, Princeton professor Cornel West, portrayed Mumia not only as an important figure in the “black tradition” of “emancipating democracy,” but also as a man whose foremost ideals included “justice” and “love.” Another speaker, Trinity College professor Vijay Prashad, hailed Mumia as the “voice of the voiceless,” a victim of “the U.S. mass incarceration system,” and a man who was able to “inspire us” with his noble perseverance. A third speaker, Columbia professor Jamal Joseph, drew a parallel between his own past experience as a Black Panther organizer, and the practice of authentic love.
In March 2011, MSA CU co-sponsored an event featuring a speech and book-signing by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, best known for his effort to build the “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York City.
MSA CU has participated numerous times — along with more than 250 fellow Muslim organizations (mostly chapters of the MSA) — in an annual “Ramadan Fast-a-Thon,” where students, on one designated day each year, eat nothing at all from sunrise to sundown. The stated purpose of this event — which was initiated shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — is twofold: to raise money for the hungry and poor, and to help Americans increase their understanding of Muslims’ good intentions. Such notables as Sheikh Muhammad Nur Abdullah, Sheikh Abdullah Idris Ali, Imam Zaid Shakir, and Sheikh Hamza Yusuf have endorsed the Fast-a-Thon.
In December 2016, approximately 50 activists affiliated with 26 of Columbia’s campus organizations including MSA CU, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the Black Students Organization, and the Columbia Queer Alliance, staged a walkout designed to disrupt a campus event where a Yemenite Jewish man was describing his own historical connection to the land of Israel. Prior to and during their walkout, the protesters displayed signs reading: “Settlers are not indigenous” and “Zionism is racism.” They also accused Israel of “theft, displacement and ethnic cleansing.”
In March 2017, MSA CU — lamenting that Donald Trump’s presidency was “legalizing racism” and promoting “Islamophobia” — circulated a petition demanding that the university provide them with a full-time religious “advisor” and a prayer room that would be accessible during breaks in their academic schedule. “Hateful Islamophobic rhetoric directly leads to anti-Muslim violence and puts our entire community under enormous risk, stress, and insecurity,” the Association added. “… Students who are visibly Muslim, such as women wearing hijab, are increasingly concerned for their safety as they publicly practice and express their faith.” By mid-April, Columbia had met MSA CU’s demands, but the organization remained unsatisfied. “Every year it’s been a battle getting things,” complained MSA senior adviser and former president Fatima Koli. “It’s been like pulling teeth when we’re asking the chaplain for anything.”
Further Reading: “About Columbia MSA” (Facebook.com); “52 Muslim Groups in the United States Condemns Cartoons As ‘Insult to Islam’” (Militant Islam Monitor, 2-16-2004); “Finkelstein Rethinks Israel-Palestine” (Columbia Spectator, 3-9-2006); “Minuteman Founder Jim Gilchrist Storms Off Democracy Now! Debate With Columbia Student Organizer” (DemocracyNow.org, 10-11-2006); “Chaplain Cuts Conservatives’ Guest List” (Columbia Spectator, 10-12-2006, re: Walid Shoebat); “CEO of Ethan Allen Furniture Farooq Kathwari Sponsors Kashmir Corps Event with Muslim Brotherhood linked MSA” (Militant Islam Monitor, 3-30-2009); “Mumia Abu-Jamal: At the Crossroads” (Workers World, 4-15-2010, re: “Call To Action Day”); “Sellout Crowd at Event for Mumia Abu-Jamal at Barnard College/Columbia University” (Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, 4-4-2010); “LectureHop: A Conversation with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf” (Bwog.com, 3-10-2011); “Fast-a-thon!” (CU-MSA.blogspot.com, 9-7-2009); “Angry Activists at Columbia U Protest ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Event Highlighting Historical Jewish Ties to Israel” (The Algemeiner, 12-7-2016); “Columbia’s Muslim Students Demand Advisor and Prayer Space” (Daily Caller, 3-23-2017); “Muslim Students Have Demands Met at Columbia” (Daily Caller, 4-14-2017).