Boston mosque rises above the fray
Muslim and Jewish groups drop lengthy lawsuits, and a house of worship moves forward.
More than 2,000 people gathered in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood last month for a highly symbolic moment – the capping of the minaret on a new mosque. A joyous occasion, the event sparked greater emotion than usual because construction of the Islamic Society of Boston's Mosque and Cultural Center had been stalled for more than two years – and had seemed in jeopardy. Controversy over allegations that the mosque had ties to terrorism had mushroomed into lawsuits and poisoned relations among the city's Jewish and Muslim communities.Skip to next paragraph
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The lawsuits have now been settled, thanks in part to interfaith efforts for more than a year to bring the litigants together. Some in the Jewish community say, however, that difficult questions still stand in the way of restoring relations with the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB). Others see the opportunity for a fresh start to break down suspicions and distrust through renewed dialogue.
"This is an opportunity to take advantage of.... Being able to resolve this difficulty and to grow out of a sense of conflict into a more active, positive conversation has an importance not only for Boston, but beyond," says David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, in Newton, Mass.
The conflict reflects fears and insecurities felt since 9/11 by many Americans who worry about the potential for the kind of threats Britain is currently facing. For Jews and Muslims, it is even more challenging.
The success will depend, it seems, on the extent to which those in the local community dwell on deep concerns associated with the Middle East situation or focus on building local ties. Boston has a history of strong Christian-Jewish relations, and post-9/11, the conversations began to embrace Muslims, including the ISB.
But when the society took steps to build the largest mosque in New England, some people who see the Muslim presence itself as a threat and US Muslims as under suspicion mounted a challenge.
Local objections to mosque
Contracting for a property with the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1999, the ISB got the land at less than market value (as have several religious entities), with the proviso that it provide certain services to the local community, such as maintaining a neighborhood park.
But after the 2003 groundbreaking, obstacles appeared. The Boston Herald and local Fox 25 TV published stories accusing ISB leaders of links to terrorism. A city resident filed a lawsuit challenging the discounted land sale as unconstitutional. The David Project (DP), a right-leaning, pro-Israel advocacy group, began to publicize the charges and seek public hearings. It later came to light (via subpoenaed e-mails) that members of the group had worked actively to instigate the lawsuit and news stories as part of their "strategies to attack the mosque."
In 2005, the ISB filed a defamation suit against the groups and media outlets. That led mainstream Jewish organizations to line up with the David Project and to say the lawsuit made it difficult to carry on any communication with the ISB.
As tensions mounted, the Interreligious Center on Public Life (ICPL), a joint venture of Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School, invited an expert in conflict resolution, the Rev. Raymond Helmick, S.J., of Boston College, to lead an effort to bridge the divide.
"The ICPL's interest was in trying to head off community damage," says Father Helmick. "Our task force [which included well-known author Rabbi Harold Kushner] worked for a full year to urge the parties toward mediation. The ISB was willing from the start, but the David Project resisted."
They insisted there was nothing to mediate. "The David Project rejected absolutely the suggestion there would be any limitation on their ability to raise questions about the funding and leadership of the ISB," says Jeffrey Robbins, the group's attorney.
Their accusations of radical leadership rest on past or present ISB ties to three people. One charge involves a recent trustee, Walid Fitaihi (who taught at Harvard Medical School and returned to Saudi Arabia to open a hospital), whose anti-Semitic comments were published in an Arabic newspaper in 2000. Another involves a man who had been involved in the ISB in the 1980s and was recently jailed for participating in a plot to kill a Saudi official.
The third involves Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Qatar, a very prominent Muslim cleric. A reformist on issues such as support for democracy, the sheikh holds a controversial stance on suicide bombing. Opposing it in general, including 9/11 and the London bombings, he supports it when people are under occupation, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq. He has been banned from the US since 1999.
The ISB responds that Mr. Qaradawi was an honorary trustee in the 1990s but is not connected to the society today.