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A Mosque Grows in Boston

. . . but not without multiple lawsuits. The strange story of the Islamic Society of Boston's new mosque.

11:00 PM, Dec 13, 2005 • By DEAN BARNETT
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ON NOVEMBER 7, 2002, POLITICIANS AND OTHER LUMINARIES--including Boston Mayor Thomas P. Menino--gathered at the corner of Tremont Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. They held shovels and awaited a photo op to celebrate the ground-breaking of a new mosque for the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB). It was a special occasion. The design for the $22 million mosque included a125-foot minaret as well as a 75-foot dome over the prayer hall. Al Jazeera joined the local Boston media on hand to chronicle the day.

It must have seemed noble and high-minded to offer such public support for the construction of a prominent mosque, especially since it had been only a little over a year since the 9/11 attacks. Senator John Kerry, who couldn't attend the event, sent a letter "recogniz[ing] the outstanding work of the Islamic Society of Boston" and praising the project for coming along at a time "when the need for cross-cultural understanding and cooperation has never been greater."

But the good feelings didn't last. In the following months, the Boston Herald and Boston's Fox Channel 25 published reports documenting the ISB's ties with terrorists, terror supporters, and anti-Semites. The Herald reported that members of the ISB's Board of Trustees had at one time included one of the Islamic world's most prominent and vocal supporters of terrorism and another gentleman who would become notorious for his anti-Semitic writing. The media also reported that one of the ISB's eight founders was a genuine terrorist who had since been arrested, convicted, and sent to jail.

There followed lawsuits. The ISB sued Fox Channel 25, the Boston Herald, and 14 other private citizens and organizations for having conspired to defame the organization. Meanwhile, a citizen of Boston sued the Boston Redevelopment Authority for giving the land for the mosque to the ISB at a price significantly below market value.

But even though this is a story framed by two lawsuits, it is not a tale of legal intricacies or lawyerly hairsplitting. It is, instead, a case study in how the leadership of a large American Islamic group woos and works with politicians, attempts to intimidate its adversaries, and claims to champion moderation--all while keeping company with prominent proponents of hatred and violence.

THE LAND TRANSFER AND THE ISB

IN AUGUST OF 2000, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) conveyed the land for the mosque to the Islamic Society of Boston. Established in 1957, the BRA is run by appointees of the mayor; its function is (among other things) to hand out or sell city-owned land for the betterment of the community.

There were a few curious aspects of the land transfer to the ISB. Both the BRA and the ISB agreed that the land was worth slightly more than $400,000. But because the land was conveyed, not sold, this figure was somewhat arbitrary. Indeed, many observers close to the situation believed that the market value of the land far exceeded $400,000.

Even so, the City of Boston asked that the ISB pay only $175,000 in cash. The theoretical "balance" of $225,000 would be "paid for" by a variety of services the ISB would provide to the community in the future. According to the agreement, these "services" included maintaining a nearby play area, giving a series of lectures at neighboring Roxbury Community College, and "assist[ing] the Roxbury Community College Foundation in its ongoing fund raising campaign."

It seems an odd arrangement. After all, Mayor Menino is normally adamant about the separation of church and state. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby recently noted, Menino is the kind of fellow who, in column, wrote "about the lighting of Christmas Trees all over Boston--yet not once [did] he use the word 'Christmas' to modify the word 'tree.'" It also seemed strange that the city would extend an apparent financial handout to an organization capable of raising the cash to complete a $22 million construction project.

And there was another oddity about the conveyance. According to Boston City Councilor Jerry McDermott, to get the signatures of the ISB trustees, the paper work had to be sent to Saudi Arabia.

THE LAND TRANSFER AND THE POSSIBLE government subsidy that accompanied it focused media attention on the Islamic Society of Boston.

Although the ISB widely and often claims to champion a "path of moderation, free of extremism" and "condemns all forms of bigotry," it has had relationships with some unsavory figures. For example, one of the Society's founders, Abdurahman Alamoudi, has been languishing in a federal prison for the past 18 months because of his ties to terrorism; his sentence calls for him to remain under government supervision for the next three decades. United States Attorney Paul McNulty called Alamoudi's conviction a "milestone in the war on terrorism."