This winter, federal agents arrested a prominent member of the University of Idaho’s Muslim Students Association. The arrest of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, who was charged with visa fraud and making false statements, is part of what some believe to be a broader investigation into members of Muslim student groups across the country.
Muslim student leaders at the University say this campus is an open and tolerant community, but events across the country are fostering fear and distrust of the federal government.
“A lot of Muslims are very scared,” said Safaa Moussa, a 2002 University graduate who is still active in the Muslim Student Association. “Anything Muslims do is under scrutiny. Right now Islam is a threat (to many Americans).”
University Arabic and Islamic studies professor Caesar Farah said the feelings of fear, frustration and anger are a result of an infringement on people’s rights, made legal by the USA Patriot Act – which was passed in 2001 to protect Americans from terrorism.
“Arrests are based on suspicion and fear. People are not given the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “There is no full inquiry and there is a rush to judgment.”
He said the story of the University of Idaho student is another example of reduced freedom in a time of crisis.
Leaders of both the Arab Student Association and the Muslim Student Association said Muslims across the country reject terrorism.
Arab Student Association adviser Ayman Balshe said many Muslims feel an understanding and sympathy for the situation of those who endorse violence against the West, and this can cause people to mistakenly think they endorse violence. Very few Muslim students respect the views of those who endorse violence against the West, he said.
Balshe compared these feelings to an orphan who steals. A person can sympathize with an orphan’s situation and still disapprove of stealing.
Balshe said government interrogation of many University students from the Middle East in the past year and cases like al-Hussayen’s have contributed to a decline in membership of the student group.
“Many members of (Arab Students Association) decided to withdraw or become inactive for fear of harassment from the government,” he said.
Balshe said reduced membership makes it more difficult for his organization to fulfill its purpose: to eliminate discrimination against Arabs by increasing understanding of their culture.
He said the Arab Student Association is wary of holding fund-raisers, for fear of donating money to an organization that might be “blacklisted” – accused of supporting terrorism – in the future.
He said a Saudi Arabian student recently requested money to attend school in the United States. In the past, the group might have held a fund-raiser. Now, because Balshe could not verify where the money would go, he said he could not help the student.
“The last thing we want is to be accused of supporting terrorism,” he said.
While leaders from both the Arab Student Association and Muslim Student Association said some fear has infiltrated their lives, they consider themselves fortunate to live in this area.
“We have been given all sorts of support from the University – police, students and teachers,” Balshe said.
Ahmed Tewfik, a University professor of electrical and computer engineering, said exposure to different cultures is essential to eliminating fear and misunderstanding.
“The more people are educated, the more they know of other cultures, the more accepting they are.”
Jens Manuel Krogstad covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]