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.
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.
The articles also alleged terrorist links because of ISB ties to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent cleric living in Qatar. A reformist on some issues, the sheik holds a controversial stance on suicide bombing: He opposes it in general, including 9/11 and the London bombings, but supports it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq. He has been banned from visiting the US since 1999, but has been invited to US-sponsored conferences abroad.
"Qaradawi was invited to be an honorary trustee in the 1990s," Kazmi says, "but is not connected to the ISB today."
Another charge involved a current society leader publishing anti-Semitic comments in a British newspaper.
"This isn't principally a matter of criminal activity, but whether people running the organization are the paragons of moderate Islam that they claim to be," says Jeffrey Robbins, attorney for the citizen groups.
Boston city officials have not modified their support for the project, though one councilman has shown interest in a public hearing.
Meanwhile, donations for the Boston Islamic center have dropped as allegations scared off would-be benefactors. Workers are now installing windows to protect the unfinished mosque for the winter as the ISB gears up for court battles.
In one case, a resident charges the city and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) with improper action in selling the site to the ISB at below-market value, raising an issue of state support for religion. The suit seeks a return of the land.
"We look forward to arguing the case on its merits," says Meredith Baumann, a BRA spokeswoman. "There is a precedent of projects that include religious institutions on BRA land, and a long public process and strong endorsement by the community preceded the decision to convey the land to the ISB." She adds that "it's common for land to be conveyed at below-market value." The site was said to be valued at $400,000, and sold for $175,000 plus in-kind contributions by the ISB. The society committed to providing and maintaining a neighborhood park, raising money for Roxbury Community College and its library, and providing a 10-year lecture series on Islam.
In its defamation suit, the ISB charges that the media, the local groups, and several individuals have joined in "a concerted, well-coordinated effort to deprive ... members of the Boston Muslim community of their basic right of free association and the free exercise of their religion.".
Those on the other side say the suit is an attempt to intimidate them, and have filed motions to have it dismissed. They insist that they are not trying to halt the mosque project but are worried about what might be taught there.
"The issue isn't the mosque, it's the leaders of the Islamic Society of Boston," says Dennis Hale, a professor from Boston College who heads CPT. "We thought there needed to be more discussion about what kind of teachings were likely to come out of the ISB."
Dr. Hale says his group has not asked for a meeting with ISB leaders.
The controversy has stirred attention, but it doesn't seem to have damaged interfaith ties the society has worked to develop since 9/11. For three years, ISB members have met regularly in a Jewish-Muslim study circle with Temple Beth Shalom in Cambridge, discussing such topics as revelation, the afterlife, and how the Jew is seen in Islam and the Muslim in Judaism.
"By studying together, you find the person in front of you wakes up in the morning, goes to work, takes cares of their kids, and deals with similar issues," says David Dolev, the synagogue's program director. "It's been of enormous value." As for the controversy, "people are aware of it, but they've had a strong experience that these are people authentically interested in the good of the other community," he adds. "They've seen something different than what they read in the papers."
Kazmi is focusing on completing the project. "In some ways, we're bearing the brunt of a lot of fear about Muslims that happens to exist at this time," she says. Her hope is that the center will become a place where "people can come in and say, 'Oh, this is all there is under those covers where we were looking for the bogeyman,' and find a warm and welcoming community."