U.S. Update: Boston Muslims Struggle to Wrest Image of Islam from Terrorists

Boston Muslims

Boston Muslims Struggle to Wrest Image of Islam from Terrorists

Scott Shane, The New York Times

15 June 2015

BOSTON — Yusufi Vali was hunched over his computer at this city’s biggest mosque, where he is executive director, when the first phone call came. The police had killed a man a few miles away. Soon there were reports that the man was a Muslim who had been under investigation for terrorism.

And so the news media inquiries began. More than 100 calls came to the mosque over the next few days. Mr. Vali would explain, over and over, that the young man fatally shot after pulling a knife on the police on June 2 had only the slightest connection to the mosque: He had been hired by a security contractor to guard the mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in 2013.

No, he was not a regular at prayers. No, Mr. Vali did not recall meeting him. No, he could not shed light on any purported plan to behead a police officer, except to say that such a thing would be abhorrent.

“It weighs on you,” Mr. Vali, a rail-slender 31-year-old Princeton graduate, said of the fallout from the latest allegations of terrorist plotting in the name of Islam. “I don’t have control over what these people do. It’s frustrating to have it put on us.”

Men gathered for Friday Prayer at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.CreditIan Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times

To be Muslim in America today means to be held responsible, or to fear you may be, for the brutal acts of others whose notion of what Allah demands is utterly antithetical to your own. For the diverse crowd that prays at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, where professors at nearby universities mix with freshly arrived immigrants from Somalia and Egypt, it means hearing the word “Islamic” first thing each morning in news reports on an infamous extremist group. It means a kind of implied collective responsibility, however illogical, for beheadings in Syria, executions in Iraq and bombs in Boston.

For the estimated 70,000 Muslims in the city and suburbs, there are particular pressures. For more than two years, since the bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the city has been transfixed by the tragedy’s aftermath. For more than six years, a tiny organization with an anodyne name, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, has publicly claimed in newspaper ads and web postings that Boston’s Muslim institutions are led by extremists and terrorist sympathizers.

And in some mosques, tensions have played out between conservatives, some with deep roots in the Middle East, and more liberal worshipers. The former imam at the Boston center, William Suhaib Webb, who moved to Washington last year, recalled that after a sermon expressing a tolerant view of what Islam allows, a congregant told him bluntly: “You’re not a Muslim.”

On the grounds of the Boston center, a soaring mosque with a minaret and red-brick construction meant to honor New England tradition, work is underway to turn an abandoned swimming pool into a formal Islamic-style garden. It was to be called the “Terrace Garden,” until some jaw-dropping reactions showed that some people thought they were hearing “terrorist garden.” The project was quietly renamed “Paradise Garden.”

News arrived recently that a 57-year-old man in Iowa had been arrestedafter posting obscene and threatening notes, one including a photograph of a rifle, on the mosque’s Facebook page. Then people began to stop by the office to show Mr. Vali fliers someone had slid under the doors of neighboring houses in the Roxbury neighborhood, citing the Americans for Peace and Tolerance claims and denouncing the mosque for “extremist leadership.”

Mr. Vali, who is close to several local rabbis and ministers and whose only evident fanaticism is for the Kansas City Royals, took to the public address system before Friday Prayer to call on congregants to ignore the bait. “Let’s kill them with kindness,” he said of the mosque’s critics.

He said he and his staff, who are guiding a search for a new imam, were determined not to be distracted from the mosque’s mission — to build a home for a distinctly American Islam, one that models community service, tolerance and compassion.

The Obama administration, worried about recruiting of young Americans by Islamic State extremists, chose Boston last fall as one of three cities for a Countering Violent Extremism pilot program. The idea is to brainstorm ways to combat recruitment by all militants, including antigovernment groups and white supremacists. But the plan has divided Muslims in Boston and the other two cities, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

Mr. Vali’s mosque is among those that have opted out of the federal program, saying that however well intentioned it is, they believe it will further stigmatize Muslims.

“There is obviously an ideology that exists that’s horrific,” Mr. Vali said. But he said he had not encountered violent militancy in his congregation and believed it would be a mistake “to gear everything around extremism.”

Rather than lecturing young people about terrorism, he said, he wants them learning genuine Islamic principles in a new youth program and in joint projects with churches and synagogues.

Hafsa Salim, a human resources manager, waited outside the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center for a shuttle to take her youngest daughter Nura to school.CreditIan Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times

Some Muslim activists have decided to go along with the federal effort. Nabeel Khudairi, 53, an optometrist in the Boston suburb of Norwood, is already designing a program to encourage young Muslims to look for genuine heroes and convince them that they “should not go to YouTube University and not listen to Imam Google.”

Participating in the federal project “is getting on a ship before it sails,” Mr. Khudairi said. “Otherwise you’re standing on shore, watching it go.”

Unlike Minneapolis, Boston has not experienced the departure of dozens of young people for militant groups like the Shabab, in Somalia, and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But over the years, a growing list of Muslim extremists and terrorists has emerged from the city.

Most notorious are the Tsarnaev brothers, who committed the marathon bombing. But there are others:

Ahmad Abousamra, 33 if he is still alive, grew up in suburban Boston. His father was an endocrinologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and president of the Islamic Center of New England. He fled to Syria in 2007 after coming under F.B.I. scrutiny and last year joined the Islamic State’s prolific English-language social media operation in Syria, officials believe. In late May, the Iraqi military announced that he had been killed in an airstrike; American officials have not confirmed his death.

Tarek Mehanna, another suburbanite in his early 30s, who was charged in 2009 with Mr. Abousamra but did not flee. He was convicted of supporting Al Qaeda and other charges, and is serving a 17-year federal sentence.

Rezwan Ferdaus, 29, grew up in the outer suburb of Ashland and earned a physics degree at Northeastern University. He was sentenced in 2012 to 17 years for plotting to fly explosives-laden model planes into the Capitol and the Pentagon and other crimes.

Aafia Siddiqui, 43, who earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Brandeis and became an outspoken Muslim activist. She later joined Al Qaeda and in 2008, in custody in Afghanistan, was accused of shooting at American soldiers. She was sentenced in 2010 to 86 years.

Abdurahman Alamoudi, 63, a founder of the Islamic Society of Boston, parent organization to Mr. Vali’s mosque, who in 2004 was sentenced to 23 years for joining a bizarre Libyan plot to kill the Saudi crown prince and other charges.

They are among more than a dozen people featured in a rogues’ gallery of former Bostonians featured in advertisements and online writings of Americans for Peace and Tolerance. The group’s founder is Charles Jacobs, 71, a former business consultant who spent years combating contemporary slavery in Africa before focusing on what he sees as a new form of anti-Semitism, fueled by Islamic extremism and hostility to Israel.

The accumulation of Boston malefactors makes for a disturbing list, especially if it is now updated with Usaamah Rahim, the man killed by the police this month, and two other men who were charged Friday with plotting with him and supporting the Islamic State. The Boston Globe was prompted last week to ask in a headline, “Are Boston terrorism cases a trend?

Abdul Cader Asmal, left, a retired physician, and Nabeel Khudairi, an optometrist, outside the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, Mass. Dr. Asmal said that Islam must find a way to “excommunicate” extremists. CreditIan Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times

 

Mr. Jacobs blames what he believes to be the radical leadership of area mosques, including the Islamic Society of Boston. He points to the fact that devotees of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist organization with branches and allies across the Middle East, were involved in founding the society more than three decades ago. The Muslim American Society, whose Boston branch operates Mr. Vali’s mosque, has long been accused of links to the Brotherhood; it insists any such ties are historical and have no relevance today.

“We think and say and write that the vast majority of Muslims in Boston and America are moderates who would never do anyone any harm,” Mr. Jacobs said. “We think the I.S.B. leadership are hiding behind the general Muslim population.”

His assertions have been rejected by Boston’s leading rabbis and the United States attorney, Carmen Ortiz, who said she finds the group’s claims “incredibly racist and unfair.”

A closer look at the extremists who have come from Boston finds little evidence that they were radicalized at the area’s mosques. For example, the authorities believe the Chechen brothers responsible for the bombing at the marathon got their ideas largely online; the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was thrown out of the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque after a strident outburst.

Talal Eid, 63, a liberal imam who was ousted from his longtime position at a suburban Boston mosque in a factional fight in 2005, said he believed the city’s mosques should operate more democratically. But he said the ideological tensions had no relationship to violence.

“Muslims all over are very good people, working hard, living their lives,” he said. “In Boston, when you talk about terrorists, you can count them on the fingers of one hand. It’s not even one in 10,000.”

But while the numbers may be small, the consequences for American Muslims of each reported plot or act of religiously motivated violence are incalculable. Some Boston Muslims believe Islam itself faces a grave, perhaps existential danger from the association with terror.

Mr. Webb, the imam who served at Mr. Vali’s mosque from 2010 to 2014, has been denounced on the Internet for his liberal views. A onetime gang member and hip-hop D.J. from a Christian family, he said he himself had espoused deeply conservative views after converting to Islam and changed only gradually.

After the Islamic State beheadings of journalists last year, Mr. Webb delivered a striking sermon. “In America, no religious community has been beaten up or slapped around in the last 13 years like us,” he said.

But he added: “Within our ranks, we have people who openly say they want to kill Americans, they would like to see the destruction of America.” Mr. Webb said Muslims did not like to talk about the few who embrace violence. “But if we continue to ignore these problems, they’ll never be answered,” he said.

The same sense of danger to Islam was expressed by an older member of the Boston community, Abdul Cader Asmal, 76, a retired physician and longtime leader in area mosques. He recalled watching Tarek Mehanna and Ahmad Abousamra grow up, and expressed puzzlement that one had ended up in prison and the other with ISIS.

“This is painful for us,” Dr. Asmal said. Islam, he said, must find a way to “excommunicate” extremists.

“If it doesn’t take a drastic stance against terrorism,” Dr. Asmal added, “its credibility as a force for good will be lost.”

© 2015 The New York Times Company


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