In early January, the Al-Talib Newsmagazine published an opinion piece penned by Chakib Mouzaoui and titled “Towards the Dissociation between MSA Projects and the MSA.” The article proposed that the Muslim Student Association’s (MSA) projects, various initiatives started under the banner of the MSA, would be better served in their missions by dissociating from the MSA. This proved to be a very controversial statement, eliciting largely negative reactions from a wide range of people, and even causing alumni to emerge from the woodworks to voice their opposition.
Chakib, a dear friend of mine, has served as a board member on both MSA and the Incarcerated Youth Tutorial Project (IYTP), as well as Editor-in-Chief of Al-Talib. His experience within the Muslim community and leadership at UCLA cannot be understated. And yet, though I understand his background, I strongly disagree with his proposal. I will therefore use this platform for four purposes: to address any misunderstandings regarding the article, to provide information on the projects, to respond to his claim, and to challenge both current and future MSA leadership to evaluate and redefine the relationship between the projects and the MSA. In the wake of the article’s publication, it has become more important than ever to inform ourselves and lend a critical eye towards the MSA’s connection with its projects. I pray that the ensuing discussion acts as the catalyst for strengthening these relationships.
In Defense of the Opinion Article
To begin with, I would like to shed light on quite a few misunderstandings regarding the claim made in the article, but I must address a disheartening trend I noticed. Much of the response to the article was a gross overreaction, and I expected better of the people who read the article. Considering Chakib’s background within the MSA, he has a myriad of experiences on which he bases his proposal, and to assume that his opinions are unfounded or “incorrect” is disrespectful to him and his service. It is also important to note that the article does not call for the dissolution of the projects, but rather the dissociation of the projects from the MSA. Moreover, he does so in the hopes that the projects would be more successful in carrying out their missions and realizing their visions by dissociating. And lastly, at no point does the article become anything more than an opinion piece reflecting the thoughts of an individual within the community, not a reflection of the MSA Board of Directors’ vision. I must ask everyone who reads my colleague’s article to approach both the opinion and its writer with nothing less than the utmost respect, regardless of any disagreements, and to make the distinction between the individual and the community at large. It will be a sad day when the people of the Ummah refuse to engage in the most basic of responsibilities towards their fellow Muslims.
Looking at the Projects’ Backgrounds
I now move to providing information about the projects, their histories, and their roles within the MSA. Though I attempted to define the term “MSA project” in my introduction, the truth of the matter is that it is much more fluid than that. Indeed, there is no clear definition of what an MSA project is, though the generally accepted understanding is that it refers to an organization started within the MSA which draws on the Muslim community at UCLA for much of its manpower, if not serving it directly. Currently, there are six projects within the MSA:
- Mentors for Academic and Peer Support (MAPS); which services high school students from underprivileged areas in LA with the intention of preparing them for a college education
- The UMMA Volunteer Project (UVP); which teaches different underserved communities about healthy living and works closely with the UMMA Clinic in South LA
- The Incarcerated Youth Tutorial Project (IYTP); aimed at helping incarcerated youth improve themselves and reintegrate into society
- Al-Talib Newsmagazine (ATN); which gives a voice to Muslim students on campus and is the platform you are (hopefully) reading this article on
- The Academic, Mentorship, and Professional Development (AMPD) Project; created to increase the retention of Muslim students in UCLA by providing mentors and supportive resources
- The Beautiful Mind Project (BMP); the MSA’s most recent project, which focuses on mental health in the Muslim community and providing related resources.
Five of the six projects listed above were created with the intention of serving under the MSA as a project, of which four came into being before the year 2000. BMP, however, formed separately from the MSA and independently serviced the Muslim community at UCLA before it recently affirmed itself as a project. Over the last few years, other projects such as Mahabba, which focused on convert care, and Snack and Give Back, which fundraised for countries such as Syria and Yemen, have cropped up but are now either shut down or on indefinite hiatus.
Not every project is solely under the banner of the MSA as well. The MSA is one of multiple “Mother Organizations” (MO) recognized by UCLA, or an organization representing primarily people of color affiliated with the Community Programs Office (CPO). Every MO has at least one sub-organization under CPO’s Student Initiated Outreach Committee (SIOC), with MAPS being MSA’s contribution to the space. SIOC committees are registered under the Mother Organization they are affiliated with and cannot register as an independent, autonomous entity at UCLA, but in exchange they each receive tens of thousands of dollars in annual funding. MSA also holds two other projects, IYTP and UVP, under the CPO Student Association (CPOSA). While CPOSA organizations do not receive funding, they are given a greater deal of independence and can register as separate organizations.
Of the remaining projects, ATN is housed within UCLA Student Media, which provides them with resources such as an office space, and is thus understood as a subsidiary of both the MSA and Student Media. BMP, as stated above, was created outside of the MSA and remains registered as an independent UCLA organization with its own source of funding, though it focuses on the Muslim community and now recognizes itself as an MSA project. AMPD, until recently, was essentially a committee under the MSA and was not registered as a separate student organization due to its mission statement revolving entirely around serving the MSA population, though it is now a registered organization as well.
Each project head, as well as the MSA President and Internal Vice President, is part of the United Muslim Council (UMC), a platform for establishing communication between the MSA and its projects in a unified space. At these UMC meetings, the members update each other on their organization’s plans and discuss ideas or concerns regarding the Muslim community. The UMC, in effect, is representative of the entire Muslim community as UCLA, and hypothetically has the power to enact widespread change or (dis)approve of any decisions by an individual project. However, more often than not, UMC exists in the shadows as an intangible entity, unable to do much more than draw unwilling project heads to a semi-regular meeting when they would rather be off doing something else. As a result, communication between the projects and the MSA is limited, if present at all.
A Counterargument to Dissociation
When presented with the above information, where UMC doesn’t necessarily effect the communication it exists for, and where every project exists in a different state of being and with various other campus entities, the proposal of project dissociation may not seem too far-fetched. In fact, from my personal experience with both the MSA and the projects, I would argue that this process is already in place, just without any formal recognition. But even though the MSA and its projects may be on the track to dissociation, I posit that both sides must do everything they can to avoid such an event. Should the projects dissociate from MSA, neither side would benefit, and the more likely result would be having hamstrung themselves in a misguided effort while negatively affecting the MSA’s engagement with its own community.
To start with, I would like to briefly cover the consequences of dissociation for the MSA. Simply put, there is nothing to be gained from a severed connection between it and the projects, but everything to be lost. Currently, the projects provide an avenue for Muslim students to obtain necessary resources for college, hone various skills, and most importantly, satisfy their civic and Islamic duties to uphold righteousness and social justice. Countless individuals have found the projects to be the reason they continued to stay within MSA, and it is a point MSA-UCLA is famous for across the nation. Without the projects, the MSA would lose out on its ability to maintain its student body, attract new people, and provide opportunities for Muslims to help both themselves and the people around them.
To start with, I would like to correct some points my colleague provided which I believe are misinformed. Due to the nature of MAPS as an MSA project housed within the structure for the SIOC, it is inherently unable to survive on its own and is reliant on MSA to not only retain its status and funding, but for its logistical needs as well. As such, for MAPS to dissociate would be a great blow to its ability to function, if not to outright exist.
My colleague further claims that the projects were created “in order to develop leadership skills among Muslim college students.” Though the projects provide a space for Muslims to develop as leaders, this was not the purpose behind their creation. Rather, each project was formed in response to address a specific need both inside and outside the Muslim community through an Islamic lens. In the same way that MSA UCLA’s College Day serves as a leadership experience but was created with the greater community in mind, so too were these projects.
Had these initiatives been established for the purpose of developing Muslim leadership, then dissociation would not be as much of an issue. And with the above information about the nature of the projects and their constraints, dissociation becomes a much trickier subject. The fundamental issue lies with the fundamental relationship between the MSA and the projects, as well as greater costs as opposed to benefits on both sides. Of course, the MSA would suffer from dissociation, and so too would every project, even those outside of SIOC.
The CPOSA projects, UVP and IYTP, do retain a greater degree of autonomy. Unlike MAPS, they are not directly under MSA, nor are their missions directly linked to the Muslim community. Rather, they aim to serve underprivileged people in LA through the Islamic perspective on social justice and servitude. IYTP has even begun to take non-Muslims as project heads. And thanks to support from CPO and their unique missions, they would still be able to draw from the non-Muslim body on campus should they dissociate. However, dissociation would mean that they lose out on any possible financial or logistical support from the MSA, which they have used in the past to great effect. Moreover, they would be dissociating from a large base of potential volunteers, the very base they started with and continue to tap into today.
Similarly, Al-Talib benefits from its relationship with the MSA by having a readily accessible pool of Muslim voices to draw from. Thankfully, it does not serve as the MSA’s “intellectual arm,” which I read to mean the MSA’s propaganda machine; it still retains the autonomy to publish the Muslim community’s voices, divorced of any agenda. However, it too does not have the comparative luxury of dissociating from the MSA. The difference between ATN and Muslim Girl, MuslimMatters, and AJ+ is that ATN’s comparative reach is lower not because of its association with MSA, but because of its nature as a college news outlet. Its reach is largely limited to the UCLA community, perhaps due to weaker outreach in this new age of social media and online publishing. Even so, how many non-UCLA students read the Daily Bruin? They would more readily read their own college’s newsmagazine. The publications above are not limited by such a barrier and are readily available to students everywhere. ATN, even if it dissociates from MSA, cannot dissociate from Student Media and will therefore remain a UCLA-centric publication. Now, this is not to say that ATN is barred from reaching great heights. According to the “About Us” section on the newsmagazine’s website, at its peak it published 40,000 issues four times a year, and its reach extended to forty states across the United States at its peak. It is important to note that this was managed while maintaining a relationship with the MSA as a project. Being affiliated from the MSA does not bar a project from wide-ranged success, but dissociation can cause difficulties in recruitment and outreach, as the majority of ATN’s staff and readership are pulled from the MSA.
Lastly, BMP and AMPD were created with the express purpose of supporting the Muslim body at UCLA, and to dissociate from MSA would be a harsh blow towards the mission by removing themselves from the very organization that encompasses the people they aim to serve. BMP, despite not starting off as an MSA project, specifically serves the Muslim community at UCLA; similarly, AMPD aims to support Muslim students through academic and professional resources. What better way to ensure the two will serve the Muslim population than by working with the organization representing that population? Should the two distance themselves and “expand their horizons” beyond the MSA, they will find that they have lost the identity that set them apart from the myriad of other mental health and retention organizations on campus. The identity they have, and the support they provide to Muslim students, will disappear, and so too will their influence and ability.
And, ultimately, it is this fact that the projects’ histories and identities are steeped in MSA and the Muslim community at UCLA make it difficult to support dissociation. To dissociate from the MSA would mean rejecting that history, the work that was put in to make these projects exist, and the missions they were created for. To dissociate would mean that the projects reject their very identity in a foolhardy attempt to build upon it. What would keep them from being just another pre-med oriented club? Another mental health initiative? Another community service organization? From just another face in the crowd of over 1000 student clubs and initiatives and organizations all vying for everyone’s attention? By remaining affiliated with MSA, the projects maintain their history, their vision, and their identity. They remain connected to the very community they were created by and consistently draw upon for their workforce. And it would be a dark day for the projects, the MSA, and the Muslim body at UCLA when the idea of dissociation becomes a reality.
As explained in the above section, the projects themselves would be best served should they stay in the MSA. And indeed, MSA would fall into a possibly irreparable state of decline if the projects dissociated. As such, maintaining the relationship between the projects and the MSA is important for the Muslim community at UCLA to flourish. However, if I have learned anything during my tenure in MSA, it’s that this is a task much easier said than done, and it requires an active effort from all sides. Over the last few years, I have been constantly frustrated with UMC and its mode of operation, as well as the apathy on both the MSA’s and the projects’ ends with ensuring this relationship endures. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the foundation of this relationship is strengthened and clarified. I propose the following steps to achieve such an outcome:
- Clearly define what an “MSA project” is, as well as the nature of its relationship with the MSA. As stated earlier in this article, it’s not quite clear what defines an MSA project, and the current MSA Constitution fails to mention the projects at all. This definition must be provided for future reference so that a project’s capacity, its responsibilities, and its relationship with MSA is clearly understood by all.
- Draft memorandums of understanding at the beginning of each year. In addition to the above, it’s important for the MSA and its projects to define their expectations for each academic year. Since goals and capabilities change on a yearly basis, these must be reflected within UMC.
- Strengthen communication. Muslim organizations often have trouble with this, but failing to properly communicate with each other creates new problems while exacerbating already existing ones.
- Research the projects’ and MSA’s histories while creating a system to archive the year’s activities and events. To understand an organization or a relationship, one must understand its background. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much done to record the various histories, and that leads to a lack of understanding about the projects. However, if the projects are educated about their histories, they can develop a clear and thorough understanding of why to remain a project, or whether it’s indeed better to dissociate.
I would also like to bring attention to the subject of alumni and their say in the projects’ well-being. Chakib’s opinion piece drew a lot of attention from alumni, many of whom had not been involved with the MSA since their graduation, and their reaction was overwhelmingly negative and, to some degree, rude and disrespectful. The alumni do deserve respect, for without their contributions the MSA would not exist as it does today, and only a fool would disregard their advice. However, unless alumni are prepared to back their words up with consistent support for the MSA and the projects, they hold their self-righteous anger to themselves. Many alumni, by virtue of their lack of communication with the MSA, lack an understanding of how the organization and community exist today, and though their comments may come with good intention, they are not equipped with the necessary information to participate in the discussion. However, there are many ways where the alumni may be able to engage in a constructive discourse and support the MSA. Telling the current MSA and project leadership about their experiences and previous visions, informing students about the projects’ histories, providing advice in times of need, and even simply providing financial support go a long way in securing this relationship as well as opening lines of communication for the future. The MSA, the projects, and the alumni would do well to use the dialogue after the article as an opportunity to strengthen relations and improve for the future.
Regardless of the sentiments held by either the alumni or UMC, it is ultimately up to each individual project to decide whether or not it’s best for their vision to keep their status. Though dissociation carries a great deal of risk, and I have argued that remaining a project is better, to remain a project without understanding why is a disservice to the other projects, to the MSA, and to the Muslim body at UCLA. And this is the crux of the issue today. My colleague believes that the projects are better served by dissociating, but that is only because UMC has placed itself on a track towards dissociation. When both of our experiences within the space have shown us that this is the destination towards which we are heading, then dissociation seems like a very real end.
For too long, UMC has forgone its responsibility to define and understand itself. Projects are continually created, but never is it certain what exactly that means, and rarely have the MSA and the projects clearly defined their relationship and expectations. This leads to problems like lack of communication and coordination, causing issues such as scheduling conflicts, lack of support, and even animosity within the space. If we aim to avoid dissociation, the end of Muslim activism and support at UCLA as we know it, then UMC and the MSA as a whole must address the problems right in front of us.
And if we don’t? Perhaps then, dissociation will become a very necessary reality.