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."
While Alamoudi had not played an active role in the ISB for several years, the ISB has had more recent (and repeated) contact with other unpleasant characters. Take Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, a prominent Islamic cleric whom Islam scholar John Esposito of Georgetown has praised as a proponent of a "reformist interpretation of Islam."
He is not, however, as reformist as some might hope. In 1995, al-Qaradawi gave an address at the Muslim Arab Youth Association's convention in Toledo, Ohio where he vowed that Islam would "conquer Europe" and "conquer America." Earlier this past year, Al-Qaradawi declared that women should never lead men in prayers, calling the idea "heresy."
This was a step backward from al-Qaradawi's previously progressive attitude towards women: In 2003, he became the first prominent cleric to unequivocally support the concept of female suicide bombers. Al-Qaradawi declared that "women's participation in the martyrdom operations . . . is one of the most praised acts of worship." He went so far as to say a woman could participate in such an operation without her husband's consent and even, if necessary, travel without male chaperones and without wearing a veil. At the time, a spasm of female suicide bombers emerged. It is a trend which continues today.
Al-Qaradawi may or may not have served as a member of the Board of Trustees for the ISB. His name has appeared on relevant IRS forms as one of the Society's seven trustees. But the ISB insists that he was listed because of a clerical oversight; they maintain that IRS documents notwithstanding, he was not actually a trustee.
The ISB does not dispute the fact that they have repeatedly used al-Qaradawi as a tool to raise funds for the Boston mosque, printing a brochure that highlighted al-Qaradawi's enthusiastic support of the mosque and playing a videotaped message of support from him at a 2002 gathering. Today the ISB's website has a page devoted to defending al-Qaradawi and their relationship with him.
THEN THERE IS WALID FITAIHI, who, all parties agree, is in fact a member of the ISB's Board of Trustees. Fitaihi was one of the co-signers of the land conveyance between the ISB and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Fitaihi is also the author of an article in an Arabic language newspaper that labeled Jews "murderers of prophets" and claimed that Jews "would be punished for their oppression, murder and rape of the worshippers of Allah." Fitaihi also exhibited scorn for the "Zionist lobby in America . . . which has recruited many of the influential media."
Fitaihi's writings came to the public's attention in October of 2003 in the Boston Herald and prompted a letter from the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League requesting that the ISB take action against Fitaihi.
The ISB initially responded that it was "shocked" by the nature of Fitaihi's writings. Ultimately, however, it supported Fitaihi, claiming that "the articles were intended to condemn particular individuals whom he believes were working to destroy one of Islam's holiest sites, killing innocent children, and thereby blocking the possibility of peace in the Middle East; the articles were not meant to incite hatred of an entire faith or people." The ISB did not explain how the "Zionist lobby in America" had any role in the ills on which Fitaihi's writings focused.
THE DEVELOPMENT of the ISB's mega-mosque and the surrounding controversy have, so far, generated two lawsuits. The first suit began as an action the ISB initiated against the media outlets who reported on the ties between the ISB and al-Qaradawi, Alamoudi, and Fitaihi and raised doubts about other ISB board members.
What separated this action from similar suits--such as the Holy Land Foundation's suit against Dallas Morning News reporter Steve McGonigle (a case that was dismissed within days of the government shutting down the Holy Land Foundation for terrorist ties)--was that the ISB later extended the suit to over a dozen private citizens who had spoken to the media about the ISB. The lynchpin of the ISB's case is that the private citizens and the media outlets named as defendants had relied on information from a man who, in the words of the ISB's complaint, "is known . . . to be a widely discredited and self professed 'expert' on radical Islam and Islamic terrorism."
The "discredited" and "self-professed" expert (who is also one of the defendants) is Steve Emerson--a semi-permanent resident of cable and network news shows, the head of the Investigative Project, and the author of 2002's best-seller American Jihad.
Virtually the entire case for showing negligence on the media outlets' part and malice on the private citizens' part rests on showing that the defendants should have known that, according to the ISB's complaint, "Emerson's research and findings have been routinely, publicly and severely criticized as both uninformed and biased against Muslims."
THE FACT that the ISB's suit depends on proving that Steve Emerson is widely known to be "discredited" is a fair measure of its frivolous nature. The complaint offers only two supporting sources for this key point. One is a negative review of an Emerson book from the May 19, 1991 edition of the New York Times. (The Times Book Review gave a positive review to Emerson's American Jihad in 2002.)
The other article the ISB complaint cites comes from a Weekly Planet piece from May of 1998, which says, "Emerson has no credibility left. He can't get on TV and most publications won't pick him up."
In the past year, Emerson has appeared on MSNBC 65 times, Fox News 78 times, and NBC 16 times including multiple appearances on The Today Show and The Nightly News.
BUT HANGING THEIR CASE on Emerson's credibility is the ISB's story and they're sticking to it. Their attorney, Howard Cooper, maintains that using Emerson for source materials irretrievably damns the defendants.
Cooper also laments that the ISB had been attacked by a cabal distinguished by "its extreme intolerance of Muslims." Which is a strange accusation.
One of the private citizens named in the suit is Dr. Charles Jacobs, the head of a group called the David Project (naturally also a defendant), which is dedicated to a "fair and honest understanding of the Middle East conflict."
But Jacobs is perhaps best known for his ongoing campaign against the human slave trade. Jacobs is the founder and chairman of the board of the American Anti-Slavery Group. Founded in 1993, Jacobs's organization is responsible for helping free over 80,000 slaves and receives support from across the political spectrum from the likes of Jesse Helms, Barney Frank, and Al Sharpton. He has also been a prominent advocate of calling attention to the genocide in Darfur--where many Muslims have recently been murdered.
In short, the ISB's lawsuit is nearly as contemptible as it is ludicrous
THE SECOND SUIT has more potential. Filed by Boston resident James Policastro against the BRA and the City of Boston, it alleges that the city provided an unconstitutional subsidy to the ISB by conveying the land for the mosque at a price below market value. What may make the Policastro suit incendiary is that the discovery process could uncover what went into the BRA's land grant to the ISB.
According to Evan Slavitt, Policastro's attorney, "any government subsidy to a religion is an implicit violation of the establishment clause." Because part of the purchase "price" for the land was a lecture series (along with other difficult-to-quantify considerations), the city may have trouble refuting the notion that the conveyance was unconstitutional.
But the city might face a bigger embarrassment still. Again, according to Slavitt, the details of how the city signed off on the deal with the ISB are unclear. These details will likely see the light of day thanks to the Policastro suit.
For this story, repeated inquiries were made to both the mayor's office and the BRA, asking (1) whether or not the BRA and/or the mayor's office were aware of the connections between the ISB and Abdurahman Alamoudi, Walid Fitaihi, and Yusaf al-Qaradawi; and (2) what due diligence went into qualifying the ISB before the land was conveyed to the organization.
The only response given was the following statement issued by the BRA:
In 1957 the BRA was established to carry out the federal government's Urban Renewal Program. As such, the BRA has certain powers to catalyze development within an urban renewal area. These powers are essential to government in a city constantly changing in light of demographic and economic pressures.
In 1997, the BRA Board approved the disposition of land that had been vacant for decades to the Islamic Society of Boston. This land conveyance, like multiple others before it and since, was motivated by the agency's core mission--to redevelop and revitalize the city in part by creating civic, cultural, and religious buildings around which communities thrive.
FORTUNATELY, not every Boston official has been so circumspect. City Councilor Jerry McDermott represents Boston's Alston and Brighton neighborhoods; the 38-year-old is also chairman of the City Council's Post Audit and Oversight Committee. In that capacity, McDermott has been aggressive in pursuing what seems like a waste of city resources in subsidizing the ISB's land purchase.
While McDermott began working on the issue from a "dollars and cents" perspective, he has become concerned with the allegations regarding the ISB. He has ordered a hearing to investigate the matter, to which he invited the ISB to testify. The ISB informed him that, given its pending litigations, it will not appear.
McDermott finds the BRA's statement dismaying. "It's unbelievable," he says. "Now that these issues have come to light, you'd think they'd be concerned."
As thanks for his efforts, McDermott says that the ISB has been trying to intimidate him by threatening legal action. He also says that he has received menacing phone calls at his home where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
For his part, Steve Emerson sees a larger lesson in the Boston contretemps. Extremists "are adept at getting a toe-hold" in America, he warns. But what's truly worrisome is that this time "it's happening at the behest and with the sanction of the government."
Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at soxblog.com