A new generation of Muslim leaders is emerging in Boston, taking the helm of established religious institutions and forming new civil rights and political advocacy groups.
The younger leaders grew up in America, unlike many of their predecessors, and appear more willing to raise concerns about counterterrorism efforts targeting their community amid the rise of Islamic extremism and its global online recruitment efforts.
The new leaders are also trying to forge solidarity across the state’s diverse Muslim communities and to develop political clout by organizing on civic issues and participating in campaigns for elected office.
The youth of Boston’s Muslim leadership today is striking: The directors of the largest mosques in Boston and Cambridge are in their early 30s, as are most of the leaders of two newly formed Muslim civil rights groups. Whether first- or second-generation immigrants or converts, the young leaders share the experience of growing up in America and a certainty they are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as other Americans.
Nadeem Mazen, a 31-year-old Cambridge city councilor and entrepreneur, started MassMuslims to teach community organizing and political campaign skills to young activists and to build stronger relationships among mosques, schools, and community groups.
Mazen said his generation came of age following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, fending off misperceptions in an atmosphere of Islamophobia.
“Fast forward several years,” he said, and “a lot of us are saying we have an interest in justice, organizing, service.”
Muslims in Boston are not merely interested in advancing their own interests, though, said Yusufi Vali, who runs New England’s largest mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury.
They also aspire to help solve the most difficult problems facing the larger Boston community.
The Roxbury mosque has participated in campaigns to control illegal guns and broaden health care access, he said, and is now focusing on expanding affordable housing and reforming the criminal justice system.
“We will be held accountable if there are homeless people in our city,” Vali said. “If this city becomes a city of the rich, God is going to ask us on the Day of Judgment, ‘What are you doing’ ” about that?
Some of the sharpest contrasts between the generations involve the Muslim community’s role in antiterrorism efforts and the potential encroachment on civil liberties. The new leaders have raised strong objections to Muslims being targeted as inherently suspect by law enforcement.
The majority of domestic terrorism attacks are perpetrated by non-Muslim extremists, though that fact received little media attention until the recent shooting of nine people by a white supremacist at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C.
Vali drew national attention this spring when he opposed the Justice Department’s Countering Violent Extremism program, a set of initiatives being tested in several cities, including Boston, and designed to offer resources to Muslim communities to prevent radicalization.
‘Fast forward several years, a lot of us are saying we have an interest in justice, organizing, service.’Nadeem Mazen, founder, MassMuslims
Vali said the programs “are founded on the premise that your faith determines your propensity toward violence.”
“The older generation, for the most part, grew up in countries where their rights were not respected, and they did not have a say in their land,” said Vali, 31, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and graduated from Princeton University. “So the fact that this [younger] generation is speaking out is actually a really positive sign, because it means that we feel like we are fully citizens.”
Nichole Mossalam, the director of the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, said she shared Vali’s concern.
Some older Muslim leaders, such as Dr. Abdul Cader Asmal, disagree with Vali’s stance, arguing for what they view as a more practical approach. Islamophobia, in their view, represents a greater threat to the community than the loss of some civil rights.
“If we are seen to cooperate [with antiterrorism initiatives] and some Muslim decides to carry out a terrorist act despite our cooperation, nobody can point a finger at the Muslim community,” he said.
Asmal, 77, who emigrated from South Africa three decades ago, said he saw a clear generational divide on the issue.
“We agree that we have the civil rights, but we don’t have the deep-rooted conviction that the kids who grew up in this country have — ‘This is my country, I deserve my rights,’ ” he said.
Underscoring that conviction, younger Muslims established two new civil rights organizations in Boston in the last year alone: the Muslim Justice League and a revived Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national advocacy group.
The Muslim Justice League, which received seed money in February from Harvard Law School’s Public Service Venture Fund, was formed by four women — three lawyers and a doctoral student — concerned about protecting Muslim civil rights amid terror investigations and Homeland Security initiatives. The league plans to run know-your-rights training sessions, offer free legal assistance, and advocate against national security policies they see as undemocratic or unfair to Muslims, said cofounder and director Shannon Erwin.
Erwin volunteered alongside other Muslim lawyers in providing access to legal counsel for Muslims contacted for questioning during the investigation into the 2013 Marathon bombings.
“The pressure on people to speak without an attorney is very concerning,” said Erwin, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2010. “Any false statement they make materially related to an investigation can be prosecuted as a federal crime — and often is.”
John Robbins, the 30-year-old executive director of the new Council on American-Islamic Relations chapter, said in addition to providing free legal counsel and government advocacy, the group aims to help the community express itself in the media more effectively.
“We can be simultaneously deeply, deeply aghast at any kind of terrorist behavior, and take accusations very seriously, and take police officers as heroes for doing their jobs,” he said, “and we can be deeply concerned about . . . procedural issues, whether [police procedure] is potentially violative of civil rights.”
In April, Robbins, who recently completed a doctoral degree in English literature, participated in a first-ever National Muslim Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. During the current holy month of Ramadan, the organization celebrated its relaunch in Boston, and Robbins has been meeting with Muslim leaders and others throughout the city.
“I think the community is concerned about being fractured or divided,” he said. “They want unity.”
But disagreements remain within the community about Countering Violent Extremism — and, more broadly, about what, if anything, to do about preventing terrorism. Some older leaders favor programs designed to prevent youth from being radicalized online.
But Vali said his job as director of the city’s main mosque is to build a strong institution that preaches a mainstream, American Islam and offers engaging youth programs. Doing that, he said, may have the indirect benefit of preventing radicalization, more so than any antiradicalization curriculum the community could devise.
Fahim Sinha, 21, a leading organizer for MassMuslims, said the real question should be how to build communities and institutions in which everyone feels included and invested.
Sinha grew up in Cambridge, as did the brothers who committed the Marathon bombings. He said the whole city feels a sense of responsibility — and rightly so. “It’s not just Muslims, it’s everybody — teachers, mentors, coaches, business owners,” he said. “People in the neighborhood. There’s a collective sense of, ‘Where did we drop the ball?’ ”Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.