The bizarre story behind the construction of Boston's most controversial building
by David S. Bernstein
November 24, 2008
Most locals concede that getting anything of substance accomplished in Boston is a Herculean task. Residents have all but embraced the principle of civic inaction with a perverse kind of local pride. In the end, who you know is probably more important than what you are trying to do. And there is no doubt that little is accomplished without the approval and support of the mayor, Thomas M. Menino.
So it is with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) near the intersection of Tremont Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Better known as the Roxbury mosque, the ISBCC has been in the works for more than 20 years. A few weeks ago it finally opened its doors for prayer — five years late, millions over budget, and still far from complete.
While the story of the building of the Roxbury mosque may not be worthy of a Hollywood epic, it does contain the stuff of a good television drama: community intrigue, religious conflict, media controversy, foreign money, suspicions of extremist ties, and once-cocksure public officials who have since retreated into a zone of silence.
Mayor Menino, in a fit of multicultural ecumenicalism, approved the sale of city-owned land to the mosque for the bargain basement — and still controversial — price of $175,000, plus the promise of in-kind services, including upkeep of nearby parks. The predictable uproar that arose in the wake of not only selling land well below market rates, but also selling it to a religious institution in contravention of the supposed separation of church and state, was supposed to be muffled by making the complex available for community use. But oops — that never happened.
The promised community facilities for non-congregant use still have not been built. An entire second phase of the project, meant to contain most of those functions, will not happen at all in the foreseeable future. The failure of the mosque project to conform to its original plans represents a broken promise between the mosque developers and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).
Originally intended to minister to an urban congregation of African-American Muslims, the mosque project was turned over by the city, with no fanfare and little notice, to the control of suburban-based Muslims of largely Saudi Arabian heritage: the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB), which more recently became the Muslim American Society of Boston (MAS-Boston). Perhaps the city believed, incorrectly, that one Muslim community could easily step in for another. In fact, the two groups are quite different.
If it was not, however, for the generosity of conservative Middle Eastern Muslims (often a euphemism for those who are hostile to or suspicious of Westerners and Americans), the mosque never would have been built. Most of the cost, estimated at $15.6 million by MAS-Boston, has come from Egyptian, Saudi, and other Arab donors.
Despite some early success in raising funds, the mosque still owes at least $200,000 to contractors for work already performed, and has no money to finish the job. A lien was placed against the property earlier this year by a contractor who has not been fully paid. It also owes $1 million in loans to various private and commercial leaders. And these incurred costs are just for the project's still-incomplete first phase.
The mosque leaders have blamed their inability to raise needed funds on public controversy that has seen allegations of ties to extremists and anti-Semites.
That controversy first erupted behind closed doors in 2003, when a member of the Roxbury Community College Foundation board of trustees questioned the mosque project in letters to Menino and mayoral associates. A Roxbury resident backed by the Somerville-based pro-Israel David Project — which monitors Islamist extremism — filed what was to be an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the project.
Extensive media coverage ensued in 2004, which in turn led to a libel suit filed by the mosque against the Boston Herald, WFXT, the David Project, and others. That suit was dropped last year without resolution.
While the heat has decreased, controversy still simmers. The David Project has sued the BRA, alleging that it has withheld records that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This action is ongoing. The BRA has told the judge trying the case that all relevant e-mails have disappeared.
Meanwhile, the mosque has reinstated to its board a man whose anti-Semitic statements led to enormous public pressure for his resignation. The Phoenix has learned that, subsequent to his reappointment, that man donated $250,000 to the mosque.
Despite this controversy, the mosque's funding problem long predates the airing of those charges.
In fact, before the BRA approved the final sale of land in 2003, it knew that the mosque was strapped for cash. BRA knowledge of the mosque's unfavorable financial position came before the 2001 terrorist attacks. After 9/11, a challenging fundraising job became even more difficult, as Middle Eastern donors became reluctant to give.
The city went through with the sale, despite evidence that the group's hope of paying for the elaborate mosque was unrealistic.
There is reason to believe that the mosque leaders are attempting to guide a more tolerant, progressive path with their new facility: they are, for one example, allowing women to pray in the same room with men if they choose. This is a reversal of the orthodoxy practiced in most area Sunni mosques.
But while the community watches to see whether this new facility grows more inclusive or more conservative and separate, questions remain unanswered about why the city government went through so much effort — seemingly against its own policies and regulations at times — to facilitate a project that had no adequate funding, questionable community benefit, and uncomfortable associations with extremists.
It is the involvement of city officials — backed by the strong support of Menino and the now scandal-tinged state senator Dianne Wilkerson — that distinguishes this project from the many churches, synagogues, mosques, and other facilities that are built and expanded all the time.
The BRA declined numerous Phoenix requests for interviews, and ignored questions submitted in writing. Menino's office likewise declined interview and information requests.
Despite stonewalling by the BRA and a lack of responsiveness by the mayor's office, it has been possible to outline the contours of the mosque deal.
Central to that deal is one long-time BRA staffer, Muhammad Ali-Salaam.
Ali-Salaam, who is still a BRA employee, worked out many details of the mosque project for the developers. His desire to get the mosque built was intense. Many have said that Ali-Salaam's dual role as both a mosque advocate and a BRA referee represents a clear conflict of interest.
Ali-Salaam has been actively involved in development projects all over Boston. City officials and developers speak of him in positive terms. In fact, one former BRA official speculates that few, if any, may have questioned Ali-Salaam's actions on behalf of the mosque, because of the level of respect he enjoys.
Still, even many of those who praise him think that his actions raise serious questions about whether Ali-Salaam, a Panamanian-born convert to Islam described by sources as devout, was working for the city's best interests, or the mosque developers'.
As Ali-Salaam's role later became controversial, the city downplayed his involvement in the project. But that claim is contradicted by internal BRA documentation, which shows him personally assisting and negotiating on behalf of the mosque developers — and often then recommending those terms or steps to the BRA board. Like others at the BRA, Ali-Salaam declined to speak with the Phoenix.
A Roxbury imam says that Ali-Salaam was "instrumental" in making the mosque happen. Another well-connected local Muslim calls him "the catalyst for this whole thing."
In fact, Ali-Salaam's involvement in the mosque plans predates the ISB, which became involved in the late 1990s. Documentation and interviews confirm that Ali-Salaam was pushing for a mosque to be built on that land even before the original Roxbury mosque leaders — a cooperative entity called the Muslim Council of Boston (MCB) — first proposed the idea to the BRA in 1988.
Then-mayor Raymond Flynn recalls first hearing of the idea around that time. "I called [former BRA director] Stephen Coyle, and found that a fellow who was working for the BRA" — who Flynn later learned was Ali-Salaam — "was making some independent inquiries on his own about possible land. . . . It was just an idea and Muhammad [was] pushing some things around."
By 1996, however, it was clear that the Roxbury-based MCB group could not raise the funds for the project, then estimated to cost $7 million. Islamic law forbids interest-bearing loans, so the money needed to come directly from donors — and Greater Roxbury in the mid '90s was not overflowing with wealth. That October, Ali-Salaam sent a letter warning the MCB that, if they didn't start showing progress, BRA officials intended to incorporate the parcel into the new park it was building on the abutting land.
The MCB asked to be de-designated by the BRA — officially dropped from the plans for the parcel — so that the city could find other use for the land. That, apparently, was not the answer Ali-Salaam had wanted. (View our Timeline of events for more on the mosque's development.)
The Roxbury-based MCB group was never de-designated. And no other developers were given a chance to propose new uses for the land — even though a BRA staff memo suggests that several development inquiries had come in, and more were expected.
The old, unwanted designation — in the name of an MCB entity that no longer legally existed — was used as a placeholder until finally, two years later, Ali-Salaam found backers to rescue the project. In October 1998, he recommended that the BRA hand the designation over to a completely different group of developers: the Cambridge-based ISB. The BRA board of directors approved the substitution, after a meeting in which Ali-Salaam personally made a presentation and answered questions about the project from the directors.
Swapping out developers happens on occasion, Boston developers say, and it is not even unheard of for the BRA to go out looking for a new backer to save a project.
But some critics of development under the current mayor say that this is evidence of how Menino operates. Whether or not this is sound practice depends on your point of view. "That just never would have happened" under the BRA as it operated under Flynn's administration, says one former high-ranking city official. "If people could not perform, they got de-designated. . . . At the end of the day, you're not in the business of getting what they [the developers] want done."
n addition to Menino, Wilkerson was a key supporter of the mosque project at the time — several people close to the project say that her influence was critical to its success. Wilkerson, who entered the State Senate in 1995, less than a year after Menino became mayor, was also a vocal critic of what she felt were his insufficient efforts to spur development in Boston's black neighborhoods, particularly in Lower Roxbury.
Wilkerson is one of three elected officials thanked in the mosque project's annual report released last year, along with City Councilors Felix Arroyo (now out of office) and Chuck Turner. Earlier this year, the current mosque group, MAS-Boston, hired a "Summer Public Sphere Intern" — who was placed in Wilkerson's State House office.
Wilkerson expressed optimism about the mosque project, but declined to discuss it in detail when approached by the Phoenix this summer, prior to the accusations of bribery and corruption she now faces. She offered praise for Ali-Salaam, with whom she has worked on several development projects in her district, and with whom sources say Wilkerson is close.
If Menino and Wilkerson were backing the mosque for its benefits to the Greater Roxbury black community — a requirement for BRA approval — they seem to have erred in supporting the re-designation to the ISB group that Ali-Salaam brought in, which is not African-American.
The ISB is a suburban, immigrant group of Muslims who have been drawn from around the world, primarily from the Middle East and South Asia, to the area's universities, research centers, and hospitals. And, according to many local black Muslims, including some who were involved in the initial development, the ISB has, from the beginning, not seemed eager to include them. A project that had originally been conceived as a collaborative effort among all the local Sunni mosques, they say, became the exclusive project of one outside group.
"They [the ISB] didn't have a sense of the indigenous Muslims and our history," says Imam Taleeb Mahdee of Masjid al-Quran, a Dorchester mosque on Intervale Street. "They were looking for space. We were looking for something to represent Boston."
Black, native-born Greater Roxbury Muslims were conspicuously absent from the ISB's literature, architectural plan, and public comments, says Mahdee; likewise from advisory boards or planning bodies.
Losing the involvement of Roxbury's black Muslims was a huge mistake, says Flynn. He had been supportive of the project, he says, in large part because his experience with Mahdee's Intervale Street mosque — back in Flynn's days working as a probation officer — convinced him of the good they could do for their community. "These were all local people," Flynn tells the Phoenix.
By contrast, only one of the ISB's six trustees was living in the country when the mosque broke ground: Mohammed Attawi, who had moved here from Pennsylvania to lead the project. The other five lived in the Middle East.
The Menino administration heightened that sense of exclusion for the original, Roxbury-based group at a 2002 groundbreaking ceremony, say Mahdee and several others. Nobody from any of the existing Roxbury mosques — those who had started and have continued to support the project — were invited to take part. That still leaves a bitter taste, says Imam Abdullah Farruuq of Masjid Al-Hamdulillah, who is trying to remain optimistic as he works to build bridges with the current team. ( For more on the divide between African-American and immigrant muslims, read Separate Cultures.)
Money or no money
When the ISB came into the picture in 1998 as the potential new designee, it was not simply looking to continue the original Roxbury group's path. The ISB immediately scrapped the design, and commissioned a new, more expansive plan from a well-known Saudi mosque designer. The cost estimate nearly doubled, to $13 million.
To fund it, Ali-Salaam personally sought out the United Bank of Kuwait, which had opened a US branch called al-Manzil to specialize in "shariah financing" — essentially, buy/lease plans to work around Muslim religious strictures that prevent charging or paying interest on loans.
Al-Manzil (in a letter addressed to Ali-Salaam that he asked to be re-addressed to the ISB representative to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest) tentatively offered to finance roughly two-thirds of the estimated $13 million project. Internal BRA documents suggest that this offer was critical to the BRA's decision to give ISB the substitute designation in 1998.
But the al-Manzil funding deal never happened: the ISB instead decided to rely on its members' overseas contacts to raise the entire sum from private donors. That decision was based on political concerns, according to David Shlosh, who was the al-Manzil executive handling the discussions at the time; the biggest concern being that funding from the United Bank of Kuwait "would make it seem too 'Islamic.'?"
Ironically, the decision meant an even greater dependence upon big-dollar donations from wealthy Middle Eastern Muslims — who would end up contributing more than $7 million to the Roxbury mosque, according to Charles Jacobs, who until recently led the David Project. Jacobs, a critic of the mosque, obtained records of the wire transfers during the libel and defamation lawsuit brought against the David Project and others by the ISB.
Ali-Salaam was directly involved in the effort to raise that money from the beginning — as was Menino. The mayor met with Esam Mudeer, a Saudi executive, in 1998 to discuss fundraising for the mosque. Ali-Salaam then tried to put together a trip to Saudi Arabia that was to include Menino, BRA director Thomas O'Brien, BRA chairman Clarence Jones, and others.
That trip was also to include Wilkerson, along with State Representative Gloria Fox.
According to BRA correspondence first reported last year by the BostonGlobe, O'Brien agreed to the trip, which did not take place. No explanation has been given for why it did not occur.
Menino and the BRA director did, however, allow Ali-Salaam to go to the Middle East in December 1999 to assist in fundraising — although when this trip was first disclosed two years ago, a BRA spokesperson emphatically denied that Ali-Salaam was given permission to fundraise for the mosque.
But such permission appears to have been granted for an earlier trip, according to a never-before-released memo from Ali-Salaam to the ISB directors, obtained by the Phoenix, that discusses plans for a trip to Dubai in May 1999.
This memo, an official BRA form dated April 16, 1999, indicates that the BRA understood Ali-Salaam would be raising money for the mosque during his planned May trip. "In order to take full advantage of the situation, I should schedule private meetings with select individuals who might be inclined to financially support the Project," wrote Ali-Salaam.
BRA director O'Brien, according to this memo, had given Ali-Salaam permission to travel to Dubai for a conference and to raise funds — "to represent the [mosque] project," and "to represent the City of Boston as an emissary of Mayor Thomas M. Menino."
The Phoenix could not determine whether Ali-Salaam made the May 1999 trip. He did go on the December 1999 trip. By April 2000, money began flowing from the Arab world — some $2 million that month alone, according to documents produced in litigation. (Read more on Ali-Salaam's role in Inside Job.)
VIDEO: The mosque's minaret was capped to much celebration on June 9, 2007, but a second construction phase, containing promised community facilities for non-congregant use, won't happen at all in the foreseeable future.
Even with those donations, by mid 2000 the ISB had only a fraction of the total they needed to demonstrate the "firm financial commitments" the BRA had been waiting on for two years. Nevertheless, the BRA granted the group official Final Designation in August 2000 — an important procedural step in the ISB's securing of the land.
It is unclear whether the BRA board of directors was even aware that the al-Manzil funding, upon which they had based their initial approval, had been scrapped. Director Consuelo Gonzalez Thorrell concedes that the board had gotten out of the habit of asking "detailed questions about whether the funding is in place." (That used to happen "in the days of Jimmy Flaherty," she says, referring to a Flynn-appointed BRA director.) Instead, the board of directors relied on the BRA staff — in this case, primarily Ali-Salaam — to have handled that "leg work," says Thorrell.
In other words, the BRA board responsible for overseeing BRA staff relied on the staff for its information.
The BRA also never had asked the ISB to provide a detailed breakdown, or professional verification, of the ISB's $13 million cost estimate — which turned out to be optimistic. In May 2001, contractors' bids came in between $22 and $26 million, according to Maarij Kirmani, a local engineer who served on the ISBCC Construction Advisory Board.
The new cost estimates were "well beyond the expectations of our donors," ISB assistant director Selma Kazmi wrote in a memo that month.
The ISB began a redesign to lower the cost, with the help of John Moriarty & Associates, a Winchester-based construction-management company. "The original plan was much more than they could handle," says John Moriarty. "We came up with a minimalist scheme that would meet their main need, which was a place of assembly."
That meant splitting off nearly all the "community center" aspects of the mosque — classrooms, meeting rooms; virtually all uses aside from prayer — into "Phase II," according to Moriarty.
In fact, that appears to be a slight exaggeration. The existing layout includes a fair amount of usable function space, including meeting rooms, a lounge area, and library space. However, it is still limited compared with the original plans — and none of those areas have been finished and furnished yet. It is unclear when the money will be available and dedicated to that purpose. The priority clearly has been placed on readying the building for prayer.
The current mosque leaders have no projected start date for Phase II. "There are no active plans for it right now," says Kaleem, executive director of MAS-Boston, the group now in charge of the mosque.
The lack of funding forced mosque leadership not only to curtail the community benefits from the project, but also to scrap plans for the mitigation of community harm: namely, traffic and parking, which had been a major source of concern throughout the planning process. The plan for 167 underground parking spaces was cut to around 50 in the attempt to reduce costs.
And the financial situation only got worse after the attacks of 9/11 severely curtailed donations from the Middle East, say sources close to the fundraising effort, as potential donors feared ending up on an FBI watch list. They may have had good reason for concern: the ISB ultimately agreed to share its records with federal investigators.
The ISB began working closely with federal agents soon after 9/11, according to several sources. Documents show that the mosque officially adopted a "Know Your Donor" program in 2003, through which contact information of any donor who gave more than $5000 would be collected and turned over to authorities. "The FBI was vetting the contribution list, with the ISB's help," says one source who worked closely with the ISB. As a result, "in 2003/2004 the money dried up. . . . People in Saudi Arabia were worried about the FBI breathing down their neck."
Quincy imam Talal Eid — a well-known figure in local Muslim circles who has closely followed the mosque project from its beginnings — dismisses the notion that the funding problems stem from the controversies and lawsuits that began in 2004, with public allegations of extremist ties. Eid says that the original plan to raise money from Gulf countries ran into the post-9/11 reality. "There is no more going outside and collecting money from the Gulf," he says. "Now they have no choice but to raise money from the local area" — a much more limited source of funds.
The shaky financial premise of the project was so obvious even well before the 2002 groundbreaking that Moriarty agreed to take on the role of general contractor only under a pay-as-you-go arrangement, in which no work would be done or materials ordered until the ISB had money to cover it. "We were concerned about how it was going to get funded, and how we were going to get paid," says Moriarty. "We had many, many meetings: 'Okay, do you have the money for the windows? Can we order the windows?'?"
One former high-ranking city official says that the same concern about the project's financial viability should have kept the city from following through with the final sale of the land. No such caution can be found in city documents. Quite the opposite: this is when Menino made certain the project happened.
On March 26, 2002, Menino sent a personal letter of support to ISB trustee Osama Kandil. The letter was instrumental in keeping the mosque project alive. Final Designation was due to expire in June, but the ongoing cost-cutting redesign was still delaying the ISB from gaining Final Design approval from the BRA. Menino's letter helped win a six-month extension.
It still wasn't enough; according to a source close to the project at the time, fundraising continued to go poorly. Documents show that at the time, after five years of fundraising, the ISB had just $4 million in the bank for what was still a $20+ million project.
But, says the source, Ali-Salaam and others convinced Menino that the dry spell was not because of 9/11 or the FBI's tracking of donors. Instead, Middle Easterners, unfamiliar with arcane city approval processes, were reluctant to give until they saw actual shovels in the ground.
Menino's solution: hold a premature groundbreaking before the city sold the land to the ISB — an action that was unusual to say the least. But was it an example of a can-do urban mechanic bullying his way through? Or was it an image-conscious pol looking to nurture his legacy by shaping a skyline? (Read more on how the mosque is Scaling Back.)
The mosque's shaky financial status eventually caused Moriarty to leave the project, after overseeing construction of the exterior. Since then, work has been done primarily by (non-union) Muslim sub-contractors willing to do the job at or below cost.
Even so, the mosque has run into trouble paying its bills. Mujeeb Ahmed, who took over as general contractor, is owed at least $200,000, according to the mosque's executive director, Kaleem. The mosque owes at least another million dollars in loans, says Kaleem.
Others have not been paid. "They owe me $17,000," says Anthony Lampasona. His Norfolk company, Lampasona Concrete, did all of the external cement work. Lampasona placed a lien on the property this past April. "They say they don't have any money," he says.
Another contractor who has stepped in to help finish the job is Azid Mohammed, owner of Trinma construction.
Mohammed, according to reports in both the Globe and the Herald, is "Associate A" in the FBI affidavit outlining the current case against Wilkerson, submitted in federal court last month. A petition Wilkerson filed last month sought to name "Trinma Development and Management LLC as the developer of parcel 8." According to the FBI's allegations, Wilkerson accepted cash bribes in exchange for this assistance in giving Mohammed's company the rights to develop a large project in Lower Roxbury — without going through normal city designation processes.
Sources who know both Mohammed and Ali-Salaam say that they are close friends. Both attended the Shawmut Avenue mosque for years. According to Moriarty, Ali-Salaam and Mohammed both attended an important pre-groundbreaking planning meeting, held at ISB's mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge. And, says one source close to the project, Mohammed's company took over the Roxbury mosque construction project as a personal favor to Ali-Salaam.
As the federal case against Wilkerson proceeds, it will be interesting to see if it sheds any light on Wilkerson's stalwart support for the mosque. A person who worked for a time with the ISB now says that he had always found Wilkerson's support surprising, since the project seemed clearly to be for the benefit of a non-black, non-Roxbury group.
It does not appear that the city has kept an eye on whether the mosque leadership has followed through on promises to contribute to the local community, either. Many Roxbury Muslims, and other residents this reporter has spoken with, say the failure has been clear.
One indication of lax oversight is the apparent neglect by the mosque of its contractual obligation to maintain nearby parks.
When transferring the land for the mosque, the BRA credited the ISB with close to $200,000 toward the purchase price, in exchange for an agreement to maintain the adjacent Clarence "Jeep" Jones Park — named after the BRA's chairman — and the White Play Space.
The 10-year agreement took effect in February 2003. In effect, the city has been paying the ISB $1600 a month for the job — which, even Kaleem concedes, it has not been doing.
Throughout this past summer, Jeep Jones Park was a mess. Garbage was strewn everywhere; graffiti marred some surfaces; a series of exercise stations were mostly rusted and weeded-over to the point of inaccessibility; thick cracks ran across the basketball-court concrete; benches were badly in need of paint. Sections of a chain-link fence separating the park from the Timilty Middle School have been wrenched away and left leaning against one another.
As bad as Jeep Jones Park is, at least it's usable — which is more than can be said for the White Play Space. Although a sign still proclaims HOURS: DAWN TO DUSK, the gates were padlocked 24/7 for more than a year — until mosque leaders were recently informed that they were not allowed to close a city-owned open space. (Read more on the mosque's Failed Commitments.)
A quiet coup
For the past few years, mosque leaders have worked to allay fears that the new facility will harbor conservative practices, or even dangerous extremism. But the signs have been mixed.
The mosque dropped its defamation lawsuit against the David Project, local media outlets, and other critics in 2007, marking the occasion with a large Intercommunity Solidarity Day at the mosque. The group also responded to criticism by accepting the resignation of mosque board of trustees member Walid Fitaihi, whose anti-Semitic comments had caused a stir, as well as calls for his removal — from, among others, the Globe in an editorial.
But at the same time, the ISB elevated the community's fears by handing over the project to MAS-Boston. The Muslim American Society is controversial among some terrorist experts. When MAS was established in 1992, its three founders had links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, and is thought by some to be the spark that ignited the anti-West jihad.
The ISB leaders initially handed off some of the mosque project's operational functions, and then the fundraising, and finally the entire project — with MAS-Boston officially taking over in June 2007. By that time, Aljabri was MAS-Boston's president.
And one of the first things MAS-Boston did was put Fitaihi back on the mosque board of trustees.
This spring, Fitaihi donated $250,000 to the mosque, for a matching-fund drive. Kaleem confirms that Fitaihi was the donor, and that he remains active in the mosque development. "It's not like we're hiding that," says Kaleem.
This all came on the heels of a 2005 coup at the Islamic Center of New England (ICNE) in Quincy. Long-time religious leader Eid was forced out; Khalid Nasr of Egypt was hired as imam.
Many saw it as a victory of conservatives over moderates; some also saw it as part of a MAS-Boston takeover of area Islam. The ICNE leadership now consists primarily of MAS-Boston leaders — the same handful of whom also have moved into positions at ICNE's academy, Al-Noor Academy, and other area Islamic institutions.
They will be in charge of the new Roxbury mosque — which again begs the question of how inclusive it really will be.
"The people who will be running the daily affairs [of the Roxbury mosque] are conservative — there is no hiding that fact," says Eid. "We need to see whether they will be open to other practices."
The guiding Islamic thinkers who the ISB's leaders recommend and whose theories they teach in classes at their Cambridge mosque include fundamentalists like Sayyid Qutb and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Ikhwani, the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and Jamaat-e-Islaami, fundamentalist Pakistani ideology, are the prominent belief systems. The popular Web sites used by members, and recommended by mosque leaders, are mostly fundamentalist, and rabidly homophobic.
Kaleem says that those will not be the predominant teachings at the new mosque, and argues that any use of Qutb or al-Qaradawi's teachings at ISB is restricted to their more progressive work. "Qaradawi is controversial, and rightly so, for his reprehensible views justifying suicide attacks in Israel," says Kaleem. But "he's on a very progressive side of things" with his teachings on gender relations, dietary law, and other aspects of modern life in the West. "That's what people use and teach." (Visit Shell Shocked to learn more about the mosque's relationship with the media.)
There are encouraging signs that the MAS-Boston leaders are making a more concerted effort to be inclusive and progressive than the ISB leaders.
"My sense is that it will reflect a focus on the community more than some of the 'suburban' churches," says Roxbury city councilor Chuck Turner, referring to churches like 12th Baptist and Charles Street AME, whose congregations come primarily from outside the city. "[The new mosque's leaders] will have more of a consciousness of their responsibility."
Others, including Imams Faruuq and Talid, concede that skepticism about the future of the mosque is well-founded, but remain optimistic that the mosque will, in time, ultimately serve the unifying purpose they imagined 20 years ago. "The religion is a leveler," says Faruuq. "As time goes by, their [the ISB's] children and the children of the American-born [Muslims] will come together."
It appears that they, and the MAS-Boston leaders, will be trying to work through that process without much help from the city that created the situation. Since the mosque became a hot potato four years ago, Menino and other city representatives have vanished from public association with the project. The mayor has avoided events at the mosque itself, as well as fundraisers for it, and did not even send a representative to a major unity event at the mosque last year. Sources in the local Muslim community could not cite any effort his office has made toward integrating the newcomers with the existing Greater Roxbury Muslim community.
Most doubt that Menino even still is aware that the mosque stopped being a Roxbury community project when the city handed it to the ISB 10 years ago.
He certainly has done nothing in the time since then to re-examine the process that led us to this point, or to allow others to do so. Reports a year ago of a possible city review of Ali-Salaam's conduct have turned out to be unfounded. Proposed City Council hearings on the BRA's discounted sale of the land were shut down in 2006 by Menino's office, according to several City Hall sources. The City Council did not have the stomach to confront Menino, who not only controls city jobs councilors sometimes seek for constituents, but also regulates the city services councilors are called upon to deliver to the neighborhoods they represent. The city has stonewalled ongoing court orders for documents, including Ali-Salaam's e-mails. All this time later — six years after Menino's wide-grinned groundbreaking — we still don't have a complete mosque, or an explanation for why we do have what we have.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at email@example.com.
Reader comments on this item
Submitted by JOHN CHAMBERS, Oct 8, 2009 20:09
TURN IT INTO A 9-11 MEMORIAL.