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A call to prayer, a long quest fulfilled

Celebration follows years of controversy

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By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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At midday today, a local Muslim will clamber 185 feet up a ladder inside the narrow minaret atop the domed brick mosque and recite Islam’s haunting call to prayer, starting with the words, “Allahu akbar,’’ Arabic for “God is great.’’

The chant will mark the ceremonial opening of one of the most disputed projects in Boston’s long history of prominent religious edifices, a celebration that follows 20 years of controversy, litigation, and financial challenges.

Critics of the $15.6 million mosque in Roxbury Crossing continue to assert that it is backed by extremists and will become a breeding ground for hatred.

But for many local Muslims, the criticisms are biased and racist, the controversy a tragic distraction from what they view as a joyful moment. They have succeeded, they said, in constructing a landmark facility that heralds their presence in a city founded by people fleeing religious persecution.

“This is the culmination of 20 years of the Muslim community’s aspirations and efforts in the face of various challenges,’’ said Bilal Kaleem, 29, an MIT-trained computer scientist who serves as executive director of the Muslim American Society’s Boston chapter, which is overseeing the new mosque. “It is a symbol of the Muslim community’s growth and development and a triumph of pluralism.’’

The two days of inaugural events that begin today will bring together many of the region’s most prominent political and religious figures, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, and local heads of multiple Christian denominations, as well as the first Muslim congressman in history and imams from Boston and beyond. Governor Deval Patrick was scheduled to attend but had to cancel to attend a soldier’s funeral today in southwestern Massachusetts; he instead taped a video tribute for the event.

Conspicuously absent will be leaders of most of the city’s major Jewish organizations, who have been made uneasy by critics’ assertions.

The mosque, formally called the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, can hold 3,000 worshipers in its two-level sanctuary. The building had a soft opening during Ramadan last fall, and as many as 80 people, many of them Somali immigrants, already worship there five times a day. About 600 people, primarily immigrants and first-generation Americans from North Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, as well as many African-Americans, attend Friday afternoon Ju’mah prayer, which is the biggest congregational worship service for Muslims.

The building is also used for religious education, such as study of the Koran, cultural programs, occasional yoga classes, and summer activities for schoolchildren. The building has a morgue that, once licensed, will be used for the bathing and enshrouding of the community’s dead. Backers want eventually to have an Internet cafe in the building and to add a school. They hope the facility will become a center for interfaith programs.

The primary critic of the mosque has been Charles Jacobs, a longtime Jewish activist in Boston who previously founded the American Anti-Slavery Group, which works to oppose slavery in Sudan and elsewhere, and The David Project, an Israel advocacy organization. He has founded an organization called Americans for Peace and Tolerance with two longtime allies, Boston College political science professor Dennis B. Hale and Virginia-based Islamic scholar Ahmed S. Mansour. The group plans to stage a protest at the opening today.

Jacobs has worked to persuade local Jewish leaders to keep their distance from the Roxbury mosque and has asserted that the mosque’s leaders, contributors, and ideology are “extremist.’’ He and others have contended that the mosque got a sweetheart deal from the city to buy the land at a discount price.

Jacobs played an audiotape of a man he says was a recent speaker at the mosque describing Christians in previous comments as “filth’’ and denying the Holocaust. The critics also contend that the bulk of the mosque’s financing came from Saudi donors, which is problematic, they said, because Saudi Arabia is associated with a conservative strain of Islam.

“We are concerned about the radicalization of the Boston Muslim community, which has historically been quite moderate,’’ Hale said. Jacobs accused the local civic, religious, and media establishment of allowing itself to be blinded by political correctness and what he calls “Islamophobiaphobia.’’

Kaleem reacts wearily to the assertions, which he says are motivated by animus. He says no donors will have any say in the programs or books at the mosque and says that the mosque received nothing more generous from the city than have many other religious organizations. As for offensive comments by individuals associated with the mosque, Kaleem says, “People say wrong things, and they shouldn’t, and we should learn from it and educate ourselves and move on.’’

Kaleem called it “racist’’ to object to donors from Saudi Arabia.

“This is part of a dedicated attempt to marginalize Muslim civic engagement, in which any mainstream Muslim organization or person getting traction in the public sphere is attacked head on by this cottage industry of people who are very well financed and connected,’’ he said. “When the big threat to America was the Soviet Union, people were accused of being associated with Communism, and now the Islamophobia industry says everyone is a radical Muslim.’’

Several mainstream Jewish leaders have been concerned enough about the allegations that they declined to participate in the interfaith breakfast. Two Jewish leaders agreed to be listed as among the event’s sponsors: David M. Gordis, president emeritus of Hebrew College in Newton, and Rabbi Sanford Seltzer, director of the Interreligious Center on Public Life at Hebrew College.

“I would have to be shown chapter and verse before I would or could accept these allegations, and frankly my associations with the people of the mosque that I know have always been very positive,’’ Seltzer said.

The allegations led to litigation in the past, but have never been resolved in court. In 2005, the Islamic Society of Boston, which owns the new mosque, as well as a mosque in Cambridge, filed a defamation lawsuit against The David Project, two media outlets, and others asserting that the defendants had maliciously spread rumors that the Islamic Society had terrorist links. The suit was dropped two years later after another suit by critics, challenging the city’s handling of the land sale for the mosque’s construction, was dismissed.

Among the mosque’s defenders, Menino, the mayor, shrugged off the controversy, saying: “Are there some extremists in Islam, no question, but do I have some in my religion? Yes, there are. We have to get beyond that.’’

William A. Graham, dean of Harvard Divinity School and a noted scholar of Islam, said that “there can always be a single person in any community who is supporting questionable causes,’’ but that “the phobia about it that is generated by a lot of the fearmongers in our community is highly exaggerated.’’

US Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim to serve in Congress, said he agreed to headline a dinner for the mosque to demonstrate his support and try to ease community concerns.

“This mosque shows the greatness of our country, where people of all faiths and all backgrounds can make their own little place in the sun, and it shows the rest of the world that religious tolerance is the right way to go,’’ he said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.