Sept. 7, 2011
BOSTON — It’s a Friday afternoon in Roxbury Crossing and there’s a cookout underway at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Meat sizzles on the grill, people call out orders, little kids dart underfoot. Except for a few details, like the headscarves on the women, it’s an ordinary summer scene. And, for the participants, thatn itself is a victory.
“I remember walking into the classroom people said the planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and they had collapsed,” says Afif Abdurrahman, a junior at Northeastern University. “And I was thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s an awful thing. And then the name Islam came up.”
Abdurrahman was born in Connecticut and moved to Boston when he was one. He was in fourth grade on Sept. 11 and says the attacks made him think seriously about his religion for the first time.
“I knew I was Muslim, but I never identified — at the forefront of my mind, I didn’t identify as primarily and foremost a Muslim,” he says. “Sept. 11 made people reconsider their affiliation and loyalty to the religion and made them sort of ask questions, (like) what is this religion about?”
For Abdurrahman, this meant pondering the fundamentals of his faith. He concluded that authentic Islam abhors violence instead of endorsing it.
“We’re not meant to be violent, hostile people,” Abdurrahman argues. “And whatever happened on Sept. 11 and throughout the world done in the name of Islam is actually contrary to Islamic principles. Our goal is to live our religion and to live it in a peaceful manner.”
Abdurrahman says he’s never actually encountered religious bias firsthand, despite coming of age at a time when many Americans view Muslims with distrust. But Wellesley College senior Laila Alawa has had a different experience.
“Whenever they have announcements at the T stop — ‘If you see something, say something’ — I always have people turning my way and looking,” Alawa says. “If I’m carrying my suitcase going from home to school then I get, you know, a look.”
Because Alawa wears a headscarf, she’s easily identified as a Muslim. As a result, she says, she gets her share of stares and comments. But as Alawa sees it, every awkward moment doubles as a chance to act as an ambassador for her faith.
“If someone says something negative about my headscarf, or to go back to my home country, I just try to answer it in the most diplomatic way possible,” she explains. “Because I consider America to be my home country. I just try to explain that I wear this out of modesty, and as a symbol of my faith. It’s a reminder for me to be humble and modest in my everyday life.”
Alawa said that, on balance, she actually found Boston to be a pretty welcoming place in which to be a young Muslim woman.
“Boston is a very open city, a very multicultural city,” she said. “Coming from New Hampshire, my [hometown] is very homogenous, mostly Caucasian Americans. Coming into Boston, you have a mix of many different races. The demographic is a rainbow of people.”
Still, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center has seen plenty of controversy since it opened eight years after September 11. Before its opening, critics accused the ISB of troubling ties to Islamic extremists. The mosque countered with a libel suit that was ultimately dropped.
Then, in the 2010 governor’s race, independent Tim Cahill accused incumbent Deval Patrick of “pandering” to Muslims after the governor visited the ISB. In response, a crowd of local religious leaders from every faith stood on the mosque’s front steps and denounced Cahill’s comments.
Bilal Kaleem, the president of the Muslim American Society of Boston, the group that runs the ISB, says it was a landmark moment.
“I think a lot of those folks saw that you know what there’s a history here, that these guys are a punching bag and that we can’t let that continue,” Kaleem says.
Kaleem also believes that the the original controversy around the ISB’s alleged extremist ties actually helped the mosque become part of city’s fabric.
“The claim at the end of the day was that the goal of this place is to subert the American way of life, to subvert specifically the Constitution, that we were really trying to bring about Sharia, whatever that might be,” Kaleem said. “A lot of people came out of all different kinds of places and said, ‘Hey, look, we’re here to kind of get to know you, support you. You’re part of the community’.”
Now that inclusive spirit seems to have turned the ISB into an accepted part of the local religious landscape. And according to Afif Abdurrahman, the ISB’s members are determined to return the favor to Boston.
“Honestly, what we’ve been taught as Muslims is to help ourselves, not only our Muslims here, but also our whole community,” he says. “We’re not going to isolate ourselves from the community, and create our own gated society. We’re here to be part of this community.