Dominating the eastern entrance to Boston's Roxbury Community College, and wedged between the college's red brick administration office and sports complex, is a nearly completed $22 million Islamic cultural center and mosque. In 2003 the city of Boston, through its development arm, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), agreed to transfer the ownership of this 1.9 acre parcel of city land to the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB). At a groundbreaking ceremony in 2002 in which Mayor Thomas Menino took part, Massachusetts politicians said the project would bring together Bostonians of all faiths. But since that day the mosque has become the focal point of bitter debate--and multiple lawsuits--involving allegations of ties by some of the ISB's leaders to terror groups, as described by journalists in recent years.
Plans for the mosque began in the 1980s. In 1989, a BRA employee, Mohammed Ali-Salaam, disclosed to the state ethics committee that he was also affiliated with the ISB; the committee accepted his involvement in the project. He remained at the BRA (he's now a deputy director) even when, according to the ISB's own newsletter, he became involved with ISB fundraising efforts. City documents indicate that he went on a ten-day trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in December 1999 as a city representative for the purpose of explaining Boston's land "disposition procedures" to potential donors. The BRA told The Boston Globe that Ali-Salaam "was not given permission to raise funds for the project while there." (The BRA declined to comment for this article, and declined a request for Ali-Salaam to be interviewed.) Two months later, an ISB newsletter noted that Ali-Salaam "worked hard during Ramadan to solicit funds from overseas." Ali-Salaam's role continued to be murky: A December 2000 letter signed by him and two other ISB members to the college announcing a $10,000 donation by the Muslim group--and requesting that the gift be kept anonymous--was written on BRA letterhead.
The land transfer went through in spring 2003. The BRA charged the ISB $175,000, a price far below the approximately $400,000 the BRA had publicly valued the land at. An internal BRA memorandum valued it at $2 million. To make up the difference (between $175,000 and $400,000) the ISB agreed to provide Roxbury Community College with a series of services, such as a lecture series on Islam and aid in developing a library on Muslim law and history.
In a statement on its website, the ISB says, "In negotiating the sale of the land, the ISB and BRA relied on an independent appraisal to determine the fair market value of the property in question." It also disputes the $2 million figure, saying, "The value of the land purchased by the ISB was never professionally determined to be $2M." Moreover, the ISB points out that "Since 1962, the BRA has conveyed land to no less than seventeen religious organizations of various denominations."
The deal infuriated supporters of the church-state divide. In 2004, a Boston resident named James Policastro filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that Boston gave an unconstitutional subsidy to the ISB and that the group's services to the public college are unconstitutional. The ISB alleges that the Policastro lawsuit was organized by a group of individuals and organizations "bent on defaming and undermining" the ISB and its mosque plans. A court rejected the ISB's motion to dismiss that November.
That's chapter one. Chapter two began unfolding before the Policastro suit was filed, causing the city's headaches to intensify from another direction. The ISB itself came under attack in 2003, when the Boston Herald began publishing a series of articles alleging links between current and former ISB officials and terror organizations including Al Qaeda; and documenting virulent anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric by individuals alleged to have past or current ties with the ISB, including the Qatari-based sheikh Yousef Al Qaradawi, who was barred by the Clinton State Department in 1999 from entering the United States because of his support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Following the reports and similar ones by the local Fox TV affiliate--which alleged an ISB connection to the Muslim Brotherhood--a cadre of Bostonians launched a barrage of questions at the city and the ISB. Prominent among these were Boston City Councilor Jerry McDermott and one of the college's most generous contributors and a member of its foundation, William Sapers, who says he "thought the college should have this prime piece of land."
The ISB fought back. Last year, it filed a series of libel lawsuits (which have since been consolidated into one suit) against those media outlets and 14 other organizations and private citizens, including investigative journalist Steve Emerson, for defaming the group. Libel cases against the media are tough to win in the United States, and the defendants have viewed this suit as, more than anything else, a tactic to scare off questioning. All defendants filed motions to dismiss. In its filing, the Herald said that intimidating the media when it reports on controversial topics "threatens to chill the entire news gathering and reporting process." The ISB, however, considers the media's reports to be defamation and the Herald and Fox to be part of "a concerted, well-coordinated effort to intimidate ... members of the Boston area Muslim community [and] to deprive them of their basic rights of free association and the free exercise of their religion as guaranteed by the Constitution." According to Jeff Robbins, who is representing two of the defendants, lawyers for the non-media defendants based their filings on a statute that exists in Massachusetts and more than a dozen other states prohibiting frivolous lawsuits intended to quiet petitioning to government bodies--a First Amendment right--on issues of public interest.
In March 2006, the ISB showed signs of backing down--sort of. Addressing area religious groups and lawyers for the defense, the organization offered to put litigation on hold and mediate privately with defendants. But the same day, the group filed new court documents that ISB lawyer Howard Cooper said contained evidence against the suit's targets. "My client's offer of dialogue is genuine, but so is their determination to hold the defendants accountable for their campaign of intolerance and hatred," Cooper told the Associated Press at the time.
The ISB suit "is one of the most prominent examples" of a slew of libel lawsuits launched by Muslim organizations across the country since September 11 "as our leaders and organizations have been defamed publicly," says Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C. In 2003, the executive director of CAIR's southern California office sued the National Review for libel, and lost. CAIR has launched several other defamation suits across the United States and Canada, so far winning none.
"If a lawsuit like this is permitted to prevail, it would represent a victory for bullying and, even worse, for those who would bully concerned citizens who in good faith have asked well-founded questions about support for terror," says Robbins, who is representing two nonprofits, the David Project and Citizens for Peace and Tolerance (CPT), which are targets of the ISB suit. The David Project is a 501(c)(3) Jewish educational organization; CPT was formed by a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim in order to raise questions about the ISB and the city's role in the deal.
ISB lawyer Howard Cooper declined to answer a series of questions for this article. The ISB did not return a call for comment although, in its suit, the organization denies the press reports' allegations against its leadership. Roxbury Community College also declined comment.
The ISB has in the past had links to individuals with controversial views. First, there is the organization's previous association with Al Qaradawi. Through the cleric's popular program on Al Jazeera and his website, he repeatedly encouraged the killing of Jews and gays, and endorsed suicide bombings against Israelis and the killing of Americans in Iraq. ISB's tax returns in 1998, 1999, and 2000 identified seven individuals associated with the organization, among them Al Qaradawi. (He was listed as a "member.") The ISB has publicly called his listing an "administrative oversight," and five years ago, it removed him from the list. Yet in 2002, after Al Qaradawi had been barred from entering the United States, the ISB arranged for his appearance by videotape at a Boston fundraiser, urging support for the ISB. In a defense of Al Qaradawi posted on its website, the ISB cites a February 2002 Washington Post article that called Al Qaradawi "one of the most celebrated figures in the Arab world" who is "seen as a voice of moderation."
Another relationship over which the media have stirred up controversy is the ISB's short-lived and almost-two-decades-old link to Abdurahman Alamoudi, the ISB's founder and first president. In 2004, Alamoudi pled guilty to providing approximately $1 million to an organization that supports Al Qaeda and was sentenced to 23 years in prison. During the trial, he also admitted to laundering money through Libya in a plot to kill Saudi Arabia's then-Crown Prince Abdullah. His arrest and guilty plea were hailed by the Justice Department as "a milestone in the war on terrorism."
The ISB has taken steps to improve its image. In its suit, the group distances itself from Al Qaradawi and Alamoudi, noting that the two are "known to have no actual current or meaningful ties to the ISB." It has also set up a "Know Your Donor" program in which an independent committee evaluates every donation over $5,000 to determine whether its source is clean of terror ties.
Still, two of the ISB's current leaders are controversial figures who reside at least part time in the Middle East: Osama Kandil, the group's president and chairman of its board of trustees; and Walid Fitaihi, a trustee. According to the Boston Herald, both Kandil and Alamoudi were named in a federal investigation as members of the Safa Group, a complex net of individuals and for-profit and non-profit entities identified in a federal investigator affidavit as financing Islamic terrorism. The ISB has called the Herald's report "false" and "reckless" and said that the federal investigator affidavit "includes open admissions that much of its contents are based upon mere supposition and guesswork with respect to the reason for any link or association between the persons or entities mentioned in the affidavit." Kandil denied the alleged link in a March 3 affidavit. This allegation is among those over which the ISB sued the Herald.
After the conviction in 2004 of Alamoudi, Kandil signed an online petition to the court that convicted him, requesting the "release of our community leader." Kandil is also a founding member of the now-defunct Muslim Arab Youth Association, which hosted speakers at its conferences who espoused extreme anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Among those speakers was Abdullah Azzam, who helped Osama bin Laden turn the Afghan jihad into a global cause.
For his part, Fitaihi was the source of an embarrassing turn of events for some members of the Jewish community in Boston. The long-time ISB trustee attended interfaith dialogue meetings on behalf of his group with Temple Israel in Boston. But around the same time, in 2001, he authored anti-Semitic statements in British and Egyptian Arabic-language papers in which he praised suicide bombings against Israel and said Jews are "murderers of the prophets" and would be punished for their "oppression, murder, and rape of the worshippers of Allah." After undergoing an internal review of Fitaihi's writings, and considering their "historic and linguistic context," the ISB later apologized in letters to Temple Israel and other Jewish groups for offending, and said the words of its trustee--who has since moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia--"were not meant to incite hatred of an entire faith or people."
There is plenty of disagreement as to how to characterize the ISB's general ideological disposition--historical and current. According to tax records, the group began in 1982 as part of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an umbrella organization of mosques and Muslim organizations. (Whether the ISB is still affiliated with ISNA is under dispute: According to Nadia Pirzada, a spokesperson for ISNA, the ISB is still affiliated with ISNA; but according to a recent affidavit submitted by the ISB's assistant director, "the ISB is not a member of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and to my knowledge has had no relationship or affiliation with that organization for nearly a decade.") Investigative journalist Steve Emerson's affidavit in the ISB suit points to a series of connections between ISNA and the Muslim Brotherhood, including the fact that former U.S. Brotherhood President Ahmed Elkadi served on ISNA's executive board and that Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna was featured on a 1999 cover of the group's Islamic Horizons magazine, with the headline "A Martyr of Our Times." ISNA itself was an outgrowth of the Muslim Students Association, a group that was one "avenue through which the Muslim Brotherhood ... entered North America," wrote Larry Poston, a professor of religion at Nyack College in New York and an expert on Islamic movements, in his 1992 book Islamic Da'wah in the West. That said, in an interview, Poston says that ISNA today is led by moderates and is too large and diverse to draw generalizations about its ideology. In addition, the affidavit of the ISB's assistant director states that "the ISB is not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood."
Ahmed Mansour, an Egyptian scholar of Islam and Wahabbism, visited the ISB's existing mosque in Cambridge to pray with his wife one afternoon in 2003 and examined the Arabic-language pamphlets and other literature there. "I felt like I walked into Egypt," he says. "I was scared." Mansour was forced to flee his country in 2001 after his views opposing Islamic extremism and the regime's fostering of anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment cost him his position at Al-Azhar University and got him thrown in jail. He was on a year-long teaching stint at Harvard Law School when he visited the mosque.
Soon after, Mansour helped form Citizens for Peace and Tolerance. The ISB added him to the suit in March, accusing him of "smear[ing] the society by making false statements about the brand of Islam we practice, our desire for good relations with other religions and our loyalty to our country"--making Mansour the first Muslim to be sued by a Muslim organization in the spate of cases since September 11, according to CAIR National Legal Director Arsalan Iftikhar. Mansour's opinion is that the ideology promoted by the ISB is "dominated by Muslim Brotherhood culture"--a culture that is "brainwashing many Muslims in mosques across America to think in a way that is hostile to America and American values. Americans need to understand: We are in the midst of a war of ideas, and the war is happening right here in America."
Places of worship in America often evolve out of the desire of religious groups in given neighborhoods or areas to have gathering points for prayer in their communities. But according to an ISB document, three trustees live abroad--in Saudi Arabia or Qatar. A fourth--Kandil--lives part-time in Egypt, part-time in Virginia, according to an affidavit submitted by Kandil. This has unsettled citizen groups and individuals who have been critical of the land transfer, including the David Project, CPT, and Sapers, leading them to question the motives of absentee leaders. Specifically: If such leaders have weak ties to Boston, is their intent to simply provide a gathering place for Boston Muslims? Or is it to proselytize an extremist brand of Islam to a vulnerable community? Another leader, board of directors chairman Yousef Abou-Allaban, who filed the lawsuits with Kandil, was forced to flee the United States "out of concern for his safety and the safety of his children" and is now residing in the United Arab Emirates, according to the ISB suit. Two ISB leaders signed the deed for the land in 2003 at the American consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
"I want to understand what will be taught and preached in that mosque and whether it will pose a danger to the tolerant, multi-ethnic Boston community," says Avi Goldwasser, a co-founder of the David Project. "If people like Yousef Al Qaradawi become the model to whom Muslims in the U.S. are taught to look to for guidance and inspiration, then Muslims looking to practice a moderate brand of Islam won't find it here. ... I don't think interfaith relations will have a future in this country," says Dennis Hale, a Boston College political science professor and co-founder of Citizens for Peace and Tolerance, whose 2004 press conference on the deal spurred the city council to open an investigation of the sale.
Among some of Boston's approximately 70,000 Muslims, there is quiet embarrassment about the whole affair. Abdul Cader Asmal, who has had leadership positions in three Islamic centers not affiliated with the ISB, says he feels "uncomfortable" with ISB's lawsuit and that the dispute "could have been resolved peacefully." He says he is disheartened about the record of some ISB officials and that "Muslims feel [their record] creates an unfair representation of the community."
For other Muslims, however, the controversy has only united them in backing the ISB because "they feel besieged by society" as a result of attacks on the organization, says Abdel Rachman Mohammed, president of the Islamic Council of New England, an umbrella organization of mosques and organizations including the ISB. Mohammed says prayer-goers, not ISB leadership, will set the tone inside the mosque, but that, in any case, "the leadership is not extremist." "The ISB has my full support," says Imam Abdullah Faaruuq of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah in Boston. "I'm no more concerned about [the ISB] than I am about some senators and congressmen in this country." The question is: How concerned should the rest of us be?
Tamar Morad, a freelance writer living in Boston, teaches journalism at Boston University and Brandeis University. She is a former reporter for Ha'aretz and The Jerusalem Post, and wrote a weekly column for The Wall Street Journal. She is currently writing a book about the Jews of Iraq.
By Tamar Morad