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Battle waged in Boston over new mosque

Islamic center project has become a lightning rod for accusations.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2006



Worshipers at the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) still pack into their cramped mosque in Cambridge, Mass. The crowd spills out into the parking lot for the Friday prayer service. Their hopes of celebrating this past Ramadan in a brand-new mosque and cultural center were dashed.

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The stated aim of the quarter-century-old society was to build a center for worship, education, and community outreach. Instead, the $24 million project in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood is snarled in accusation, acrimony, and lawsuits. It's a microcosm of the suspicions about Islam that have played out across America since 9/11.

After the city of Boston conveyed a parcel of land to the ISB, articles appeared in the Boston Herald in 2003 linking society leaders to Islamic extremists. The ISB denied the story, responding in detail to what it saw as inflammatory distortions. "When you place a picture of Osama bin Laden next to a picture of our mosque, that is completely misrepresentative of who we are," says Salma Kazmi, assistant project director.

Boston's Fox TV station followed with broadcasts on the charges, and two local organizations - the David Project, a pro-Israel group, and Citizens for Peace and Tolerance (CPT) - have continued to publicize them and press for public hearings.

CPT says Boston could become a "potential radical Islamic center." The ISB counters that media and local groups, with help from terrorism analyst Steven Emerson, have conspired to halt construction and "incite public sentiment against area Muslims."

The society has filed a defamation suit. A local resident has also sued the city seeking invalidation of the land sale to the ISB.

The specific charges may have to be sorted out in court, but the Boston controversy fits a national pattern.

Four years after 9/11, mosques in many communities continue to encounter wariness and resistance ranging from suspicions raised at zoning hearings to vandalism and worse. On Dec. 20, two pipe bombs damaged an Islamic center in an upscale neighborhood of Cincinnati. The FBI said the powerful explosion could have been deadly had people been present.

"It's all part of the unfortunate temper of the times," says John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "There is such a thing as Islamophobia."

Others, however, including the Investigative Project run by Mr. Emerson, say there is widespread extremist influence in US mosques. They point to Saudi Arabian literature rife with religious bigotry found in some mosque libraries, and to sympathy for various Islamic movements. Their concerns receive regular media play as the groups press for government investigations.

Law enforcement agencies have had US mosques under scrutiny, but some experts and officials have concluded that they do not present the danger that some mosques in Europe have posed. A 2005 internal FBI report leaked last spring said no evidence has been found of terrorist networks or "sleeper cells" in the US.

"Whether it deals with zoning councils or defamatory statements made about Muslim communities or mosques, unfortunately it's something of a growing phenomenon," says Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Washington. He calls the Boston case worrisome: "Misinformation has always been a tactic, but false media reporting to circumvent a local project is raising the level of the stakes."

Both media outlets have said that they stand by their stories.

In alleging that the society has close ties to radical Islam, the Herald articles highlighted Abdurahman Alamoudi, calling him "the founder" of the ISB. Mr. Alamoudi was recently convicted and jailed in an assassination plot against a Saudi official. The society says Alamoudi was one in a group of university students who founded the ISB in 1981, that he left Boston in the mid-1980s, and has had no contact with it since then.

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