Boston Muslims gather, saddened and shaken
Heiam Alsawalhi, a mother of four from Brookline, does not usually go to the mosque for Friday prayers. But this week, she had to be there.
She needed spiritual healing for the grief and rage she felt after the Marathon bombings, she said. She wanted the sense of empowerment felt when a faith community comforts its own. And, she said, she wanted to greet the Jewish and Christian clergy who came to offer their support.
“I wanted to shake their hands and thank them for being with us in solidarity,” she said after a service at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
Friday was the local Muslim community’s first opportunity to come together for Friday prayer since the bombings. A week before, a manhunt forced a citywide shutdown, precipitating an almost unheard-of cancellation. In the days after, as it became clear that the brothers suspected in the attack were Muslim and occasionally prayed at a mosque in Cambridge, many local Muslims began sensing a backlash against their faith.
In Malden, a Palestinian woman was walking with her infant daughter when she was assaulted by a man screaming, inches from her face, “[Expletive] you Muslims, [expletive] you terrorists.” In some media reports, critics of local Muslim leaders rehashed controversies about the two main mosques in Cambridge and Roxbury. Critics say they are run by extremists, a charge local Muslims — and many Jewish and Christian leaders — reject as biased and inaccurate.
And in everyday encounters, many Muslims said they found a new tension in the air.
“You’re kind of getting those looks again,” said Omar Abdelkader, a 23-year-old student at Northeastern University.
In his sermon, Imam William Suhaib Webb, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, the city’s largest mosque, captured the sense of lamentation, bewilderment, and indignation his congregation felt.
“We come [together] after a horrendous tragedy has befallen our city,” he said. “Our sacredness has been violated. And a week later, we find our own community under a tremendous amount of pressure.”
Webb spoke of the powerful emotions experienced by community members — the surgical resident who rushed to help the wounded; the badly wounded Saudi woman who almost lost her legs; the foreign student who confided to Webb, “I just think the whole world is against me.”
But, the imam said, “the dark clouds that are so intimidating, they bring with them the gift of rain.”
He pointed to the 100 or so supportive e-mails he said he received from neighbors, as well as others around the country. And he thanked clergy of other faiths who had stepped forward to support the local mosques, including Rabbis Ronne Friedman and Jeremy S. Morrison of Temple Israel and the Rev. Burns Stanfield, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, each of whom addressed the Roxbury mosque Friday.
He said Muslims must politely but firmly stand up to their detractors. “No one has the right to define our community except us,” Webb said, adding, a bit later: “The best way to address hate is with love.” But tough love, he said.
Imam Ibrahim Rahim of the Yusuf Mosque in Brighton told his congregation: “Today, we insist to our neighbors that we Muslims are people of peaceful covenant.”
“As our neighbors, your blood is sacred, your lives are sacred. No one has a right to kill any one of us for any reason!” he said. “We are against senseless hate and violence, as is Allah, Mohammed (peace be upon him), and the Holy Koran.”
And at the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, Ismail Fenni, an assistant imam, told the 100 or so people gathered that God would offer grace to those who respect the sanctity of life and deliver his harshest punishment to those who destroy it.
“As we live through this difficult and trying time after the tragedy that has touched us all, we must remind one another of the need to come closer and the need to help and care for one another,” he said.
The bombings presented a new opportunity for Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance and a longtime critic of the Islamic Society of Boston, which owns both the Cambridge and Roxbury mosques, to argue his case. In USA Today, Fox News, and other media outlets, he renewed arguments that the organization is tied to extremists. He believes their ultimate goal is to radicalize American Muslims and, eventually, to establish an Islamic society ruled by strict Sharia law.
“The problem is the radicalization of the historically moderate American Muslim community, which is particularly aimed at its youth,” Jacobs said. “We don’t hate Muslims. We’re not racist.”
Local Muslim leaders and many of their allies in other faith communities say Jacobs’s statements are false and hurtful to their communities.
“Our [mosque] is completely open to the community, and we want people to come and see the work we are doing,” said Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. “What they’ll see is we are welcoming to neighbors, we create relationships with our faith partners and with our political leaders.”
In the past, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick have visited the mosque, he added, “because everyone realizes these allegations are not at all connected to who we are.”
Nichole Mossalam, executive director of the Cambridge mosque, said her office has been deluged since the bombings with calls from the authorities, from the media, from people saying Muslims “should go back where you came from” — and from other people of faith wanting to help.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain, who attended the service in Cambridge on Friday, said he reached out to his friend Fenni after the bombings.
“It was clear how much the people in the Muslim community were hurting, beyond the hurt we and all of us were feeling over the horror of the tragedy,” he said. “In the midst of their own grief, they were beset upon and pointed at.”
At the Roxbury mosque, Friedman told the congregation: “We stand with you — we are one Boston.”
Passant Ahmed, a dentist and mother of two children from Arlington, said she wept after Webb’s sermon, which she said touched many of the emotions she has felt over the last week — the horror after the attacks, fear about wearing her head scarf in public, and joy in the kind words of her neighbors. “This is the first time I’ve come to the ISBCC,” she said, referring to the Roxbury mosque, “and seen people not having big smiles. I can feel the sorrow. People are grieving.”