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Boston mosque project chills dialogue

A mosque and Islamic cultural center under construction in Boston. (Penny Schwartz)

A mosque and Islamic cultural center under construction in Boston. (Penny Schwartz)

BOSTON, March 26 (JTA) — What began more than three years ago as a momentous groundbreaking on a $22 million mosque and Islamic cultural center has turned into a bitter public controversy that has chilled relations between leaders of Boston’s Jewish and Muslim communities. The most recent development unfolded in early March with reports of a possible conflict of interest by a Boston Redevelopment Authority employee who is a leader in the Islamic Society of Boston, or ISB. According to newly discovered records, the man was involved in preparing the original mosque development proposal, which placed the value of the land at $2 million, or approximately five times the value stated when the land was conveyed to the ISB in May 2003. However, the ISB received a further reduction for in-kind services and benefits to the city and an adjacent public community college — such as establishing a library on the history of Islam — and paid just $185,000 for the 1.9-acre property. Further questions have been raised about the Redevelopment Authority employee’s role in fund raising for the mosque. The huge discrepancy in the land valuation is just one question about the mosque project that he’d like addressed, Boston City Councillor Jerry McDermott told JTA. McDermott says he supports the building of a mosque, but is calling for a hearing into the land deal. What’s causing the most friction between Jewish and Islamic leaders is a lawsuit filed by the ISB against the David Project, a pro-Israel educational group that has been among the most visible groups raising public questions about the project. Filed in November 2005, the suit charges the David Project, one of its employees, 13 other groups and individuals and two media outlets with defamation and conspiracy to keep the project from completion. The charges allege that the David Project and Steven Emerson of the anti-terrorist Investigative Project, who also is named in the ISB lawsuit, colluded behind the scenes to provide false, highly provocative and defamatory information to media outlets. Defenders of the David Project say the lawsuits are intended to intimidate critics and distract attention from the real issues — which they say fits a pattern of U.S. mosques filing lawsuits to silence those who raise questions. “This is not a case about religion or Islam or a cultural clash,” insists Jeffrey Robbins, an attorney for the David Project. “It’s about people who have been sued for having asked legitimate questions.” Robbins has filed a series of motions to dismiss the ISB’s suit. Observers and key players say the dispute shouldn’t be seen as one between Jews and Muslims, yet the strain between the two communities has made headlines and is preventing further dialogue. “I have said, in every forum, this is not a battle between Muslims and Jews but between specific people, and we are dealing with it in court,” ISB assistant director Salma Kazmi says. “I have always worked toward dialogue and mutual understanding for all people of faith. I don’t think this suit should stand in the way between Muslims and Jews in Boston.” For the past three years, Kazmi has co-chaired the Center for Jewish-Muslim Relations, a group she co-founded with David Dolev, program director for Temple Beth Shalom in Cambridge, Mass. The center has led discussions among Jewish and Muslim leaders on issues such as the importance of Israel to the Jewish community. But the suit has chilled dialogue with the ISB at the highest levels of Boston’s Jewish leadership, says Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which publicly backed the David Project after it was sued. Kaufman doesn’t want the Jewish community to be seen as preventing the mosque from being built, a concern others share. Questions about the mosque first became public in October 2003, months after the Redevelopment Authority, a city entity, gave the ISB final approval to build the mosque and cultural center on a plot in Roxbury. Reports by the Boston Herald and Boston’s Fox Television station linked several past and current ISB leaders or supporters to extremist Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They include: • Abdurahman Alamoudi, an ISB founder who is now in jail for his connection to a Libyan assassination attempt against the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and who was cited by the U.S. Treasury Department in July for raising money for terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaida; • Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an extremist cleric who has been banned from visiting the United States since 1999 for his alleged ties to Hamas; and • Dr. Walid Fitaihi, an ISB trustee whose writings in an Arabic-language newspaper have included virulently anti-Semitic language. The ISB says that, in meetings with Jewish communal leaders, it has sufficiently explained the charges, denied links to terrorism, repudiated offensive writings and confirmed its commitment to religious tolerance. Mosque leaders say the project has been held up because the negative publicity has harmed their fund-raising efforts. Attorney Robbins says that’s not credible, considering that most of the money has come from overseas donors who are staunch supporters and would not be swayed by events in Boston. Among the most perplexing questions is the ISB’s connection to Qaradawi, a former ISB trustee who now lives in Qatar, according to Lawrence Lowenthal, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. A long-time proponent of Jewish dialogue with the Muslim community, Lowenthal is a member of the Center for Jewish-Muslim Relations. The ISB notes that Qaradawi is no longer affiliated with the organization, but Lowenthal and others note that he appeared via video link at a 2002 fund-raiser for the mosque. Such contradictions cause problems for the ISB and other Muslim groups, says Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute. Khan says defamation lawsuits can be a legitimate way of countering intentional falsehoods perpetrated in the media against Muslim-Americans. But going forward, he says, Islamic groups must sever relations with leaders who are bigoted, increase their transparency and improve community relations by eliminating double standards. On March 3, Yousef Abou-Allaban, chairman of the ISB’s board of directors, offered to stay the lawsuits in exchange for mediation. Howard Cooper, an ISB lawyer, said the two sides would be setting a national example by submitting the dispute to a mediator. Asked about the mediation offer, Andrew Tarsy, executive director of the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, which is not a defendant in the lawsuit, says dialogue would be more feasible if the ISB withdrew its lawsuit. “We still have serious questions that need answers, and to get answers we need dialogue,” he said, noting that the lawsuits “have chilled all opportunities for difficult and frank discussion of the issues.” There’s no unified point of view among Jewish community leaders, though many agree the ISB lawsuit against the David Project is a deterrence to resolution. While no leaders would speak on the record about rifts within the Jewish community, Lowenthal says leaders are beginning to organize a process to deal with different ideas on how to repair relations. But Lowenthal is adamant that the Islamic community not be disparaged. “The challenge is to reach out and try to understand the complexities of that community, which is growing by the day,” he said.

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