Muslim center opens in Back Bay
Reaching out through culture
Tech-firm founders, fast-food restaurant owners, students, and medical researchers inspected an Iranian photographer’s images mounted on a wall. A jazz quartet performed as stylish men and women mingled easily. Five women wore headscarves; many wore cocktail dresses.
They were among about 200 people who attended the opening reception Friday night of a new Muslim cultural center in a space on Newbury Street that formerly housed an art gallery.
The American Islamic Congress hopes its new center will draw people of all faiths to the concerts, yoga sessions, and civic-oriented workshops it plans to hold - and along the way perhaps change some stereotyped images of Muslims in a secular setting.
Zaur Mamedov, 34, a Malden resident who organizes high-end parties through his Boston company, Baku Sunset, grew up in Azerbaijan, where he was born into an Islamic family.
When Mamedov, who is not religious, first learned about the American Islamic Congress, he was skeptical.
But now, he said, he often serves as a deejay for the group’s events and fund-raisers.
“I like [the AIC] because it’s open to everyone, it’s not religious,’’ he said. “It showcases the culture hidden behind the word ‘Muslim.’ ’’
There was a sense of near disbelief among many at Friday’s gathering.
Zainab Al-Suwaij , executive director and cofounder of the American Islamic Congress, said she hopes the center will serve as a model for other cities.
“I never thought we could have a center like this here on Newbury Street, with neighbors like Brooks Brothers and Cartier,’’ she said. “That’s very important.’’
US Representative Michael Capuano noted its upscale location - and its cultural importance.
“You wouldn’t think of it here, which is why we celebrate that it’s here,’’ Capuano said in a short address.
“Like every other group, you’ve got all kinds,’’ he said later, noting the many stereotypes about his Italian heritage. “It’s important that people know Muslims are more than what you see on TV.’’
In addition to hosting concerts, dance classes, art exhibits, and films, the center will serve civic-minded purposes.
It will be a resource for nonprofits and grass-roots organizations that can rent space and tap into the Islamic Congress’s network of contacts.
Farah Assiraj, who lives in Dorchester and works for Boston public schools, volunteers with the American Association for Arab Women.
“We’re trying to expand, and AIC supports that,’’ said Assiraj.
The American Islamic Congress also organizes interfaith activities. The Witness Series, a joint program with the American Jewish Committee that began this year, offers Muslims and Jews a platform to tell their stories.
“Many Jews and Muslims have a great deal in common, and many shared interests,’’ said Rob Leikind, director of the Jewish Committee’s Boston office. “We can say that even if we don’t agree on everything.
The Islamic Congress has cosponsored concerts of Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, whose musicians’ collective Dunya was on the early ballot for the Grammy Awards. With the new center, he said, he can run his own music workshops.
“The most important thing to me as a musician is culture,’’ said Sanlikol, who came to Boston from Turkey in 1993 and teaches at Brown University and Emerson College.
Sanlikol hopes to play a role in organizing the center’s master class series, the first of which featured a calligraphy master from Senegal. Nasser Weddady, civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress, called that country “a corner of the Muslim world people don’t think about.’’
In an interview last week, Weddady ticked off some of the Muslim immigrant groups that have come to the Boston area from far-flung corners of the world - the Bosnian community in Lynn, Turks in Brighton, Moroccans in Malden.
“The notion that there’s one common Muslim is a myth. It only exists in talking points,’’ Weddady said. “Communities are based on ethnic, religious, and national affiliations.’’
Weddady likens the diversity of beliefs among Muslims to that of Jews. “There are non-observant Jews, and people acknowledge and accept that.’’
Weddady, 36, a native of Mauritania, lives in Brighton. His diplomat parents raised him throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
After early work in the antislavery movement, he joined the Mauritanian democratic opposition and ultimately came to America seeking asylum in 2000. In the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he was living in Kentucky, he was detained for a few hours by the FBI.
Formed after those attacks, American Islamic Congress is a civic group headquartered in Washington, D.C., with one office in Boston and four in the Middle East. In 2004, the Boston office opened in a dark, 635-square-foot space near Northeastern University.
Its new home, a bright, 3,300-foot space on the seventh floor, has modular white furniture, a state-of-the-art sound system. and blond wood floors.
Funded through independent foundations and private donations, the center grew out of a need to centralize the organization’s programs, which include college campus outreach and leadership training.
In past years, social mixers for the American Islamic Congress have taken place in bars, such as that in the Liberty Hotel.
“Some Muslims drink. It’s just a fact of life,’’ said Weddady.
Last December, its year-end benefit was held in the Club Café in the South End, a popular spot among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
“It’s important to have a civic organization run by Muslims in Boston,’’ said Weddady. “There’s civil rights work that we do and cultural programming that shows the diversity of the demographic - professionals, entrepreneurs, scientists.’’