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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 (BRA) 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, 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
(www.isboston.org/v3.1/viewitem.asp?DocID=2424&ItemTypeID=6), 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."
December 15, 2005 Follow-Up:
One of the plaintiffs in the ISB's lawsuit against the media outlets and citizens is a gentleman named Osama Kandil. The complaint alleges that Kandil was defamed because (among other things) it was reported that he supported suicide bombing.
I'll quote the ISB's complaint's own words on the matter: "Dr. Kandil did not and does not support suicide bombings, a fact he made clear in an interview with Defendant Wells in which he had not 'declined comment' but instead had informed Defendant Wells that in light of the ISB's charitable tax status he wanted to be careful about voicing any opinions on behalf of the ISB on any matters related to politics or terrorism."
Let's list the absurdities in the above quote in descending order of ridiculousness:
1) The quote says he made it "clear" that he did not support suicide bombing. Read the quote again. There is nothing whatsoever in that quote that makes any such thing "clear." Quite the contrary, Kandil's ludicrous hiding behind the IRS code seems rather pretentious.
2) The quote implies that he was itching to swing the hammer down on suicide bombing, but couldn't for fear that doing so would be such an overtly political act that the ISB could lose its standing as a non-profit with the IRS. Such a claim would almost be funny if -- actually, it is funny. Now mind you, this is the ISB's own attorneys, not their opponents?.
3) For the purpose of the lawsuit, the ISB maintains that from the above quotation any reasonable person would have concluded that Kandil was opposed to suicide bombing. p>That little quotation above I think provides perhaps the most disturbing element of this entire story. Let's just posit for a second that Osama Kandil is no radical and an ardent foe of suicide bombing. If that's the case, why won't he just say so? If a reporter came up to you and asked you if you supported suicide bombing, would you have any trouble quickly responding "No"?
But here's the really worrisome part. The ISB is a big organization with thousands of members. There is little doubt that the vast majority of the rank and file does indeed practice moderate Islam and is as appalled by the Yusuf al Qaradawis of the world as everyone else is.
So, where are they? Why has their voice not been part of this debate?
Their religion and their community is being disgraced by the ISB's leadership. With all due respect, it's time for them to get into the fray.
December 19, 2005 Update:
When I was preparing the Weekly Standard's story about the Islamic Society of Boston's $22 million mega-mosque going up in Boston, one of my interview subjects asked me, "Why doesn't someone ask the Boston Globe why they've ignored this story that's been going on right in their own back yard?"
It was a pretty good question. After all the ISB has had some rather intimate contact with some rather off-putting people. Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the cleric who gave the okay to women deploying themselves as suicide bombers (and without even using a male chaperone to get to the sight of the attack, if you can believe it). Al-Qaradawi appeared on the ISB's IRS tax returns as one of the group's seven trustees from 1998 -2000. The ISB used him as a fund-raising tool for the mosque's development and to this day has a page on its website dedicated to defending al-Qaradawi and the ISB's employment of his good will, such as it is.
And then of course there is another ISB board member Walid Fitaihi. Fitaihi wrote, among other things, that Jews are the "murderers of prophets" and claimed that they "would be punished for their oppression, murder and rape of the worshippers of Allah." When these comments came to the ISB's attention, the group expressed "shock." Nonetheless, the ISB ultimately stood by its man; Fitaihi remains on the ISB's board to this day.
When I labeled the question of why the Globe hadn't covered this story in its own backyard as only a "pretty good" one, the reason I gave it relatively low marks is because we all know the answer as to why the Globe ignored the story. The Globe would be incapable of covering such a matter without its trademark slavish adherence to political correctness. There's no way the Globe could cover the controversy either honestly or accurately.
As if to prove my point, the Globe finally waddled into the fray yesterday only five days after a national publication beat it to the punch, not to mention two years after its cross town rival the Boston Herald printed a series of exposés on the subject.
The Globe's story begins inauspiciously with the headline, "Praised as beacon, mosque project stalls amid rancor." That headline reminds me of why my high school English teacher, Dwight Mackerron, was almost pathologically opposed to the use of the passive construction. The Globe's headline can't help but make you wonder, "Who was doing this praising?"
Well, rather than just pose the question rhetorically, I'll give a couple of answers. A bunch of now oddly-silent local politicians who seemingly delighted in posing for a photo opportunity with shovels in hand at the mosque's ground-breaking lavished such praise. So too did Massachusetts' junior Senator, a certain John Kerry, who sent a fawning note to the ISB upon the mosque's groundbreaking. And then of course there's a certain Boston broadsheet that editorialized that the mosque would no doubt be a "moderating force." This broadsheet, of course, is none other than the Globe.
But a sloppy and vague headline is the least of the Globe story's problems. Far more significantly, the Globe's story lumbers on for 1500 tedious words and yet curiously never even mentions the names "al-Qaradawi" and "Fitaihi."
More disingenuously, the Globe story introduces a straw man to make the ISB's plight more sympathetic. One of the ISB's co-founders is a gentleman named Alamoudi. Said gentleman now resides in federal government-provided accommodations sporting an orange jump suit because of his nasty habit of aiding terrorists.
The ISB's detractors have often noted Alamoudi's role as one of the ISB's eight co-founders in 1984 while acknowledging the fact that he hasn't played an active role in the organization for several years. The Globe story mentions the Alamoudi kerfuffle and the ISB's refutation of any present-day Alamoudi link. The Globe story, however, conspicuously avoids the far more current al-Qaradawi and Fitaihi connections for which the ISB has issued no compelling response.
In putting together the story for the Standard, part of my research was reading Steve Emerson's book American Jihad. Emerson wrote of how a radical Muslim cleric gave a 1995 address where he vowed Islam would eventually conquer Europe and conquer America. The venue for the address was Toledo; the cleric was Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Throughout the 1990's and the first 20 months of this decade, America largely yawned at such incendiary proclamations. Certainly the media didn't care. 9/11 purportedly changed all that.
But then again?
Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at www.soxblog.com
This article appeared on the Weekly Standard's website on December
14, 2005. Thanks are due David Meir-Levi for bringing it to our
Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at www.soxblog.com
This article appeared on the Weekly Standard's website on December 14, 2005. Thanks are due David Meir-Levi for bringing it to our attention.
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