Dr. Walid Fitaihi’s departure from and return to the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) were stories worth reporting. After all, the possibly polemical physician’s writings helped ignite the controversy that dogged the ISB from the autumn of 2003 until June 2007, when the opening of the ISB’s new mosque in Roxbury seemed to bring the matter to a close. So why didn’t the Boston press pay attention when Fitaihi quietly left the ISB’s board of trustees earlier this year — or when he returned just four months later, after dueling lawsuits involving the ISB were dropped?
First, a quick refresher. Back in October 2003, as part of a series that explored alleged ISB connections with Islamic extremism, the Boston Herald reported on an article that Fitaihi had written for the London-based Arabic-language daily al-Hayat shortly after 9/11. According to a translation from the pro-Israel Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Fitaihi’s item contained an abundance of incendiary material. In the words of then–Herald reporter Jonathan Wells, Fitaihi “attacked the ‘Zionist lobby’ in America, claiming it has ‘incurred Allah’s wrath’ and would eventually lose the support of the American people.”
The ISB had a rebuttal. Its attorney told the Herald that the translation was inaccurate, and provided a letter Fitaihi wrote back in 2001 making the same claim. The Herald subsequently commissioned its own translation, which suggested MEMRI’s rendition had been generally correct. The then story dropped off the radar. One year later, in October 2004, the Globe reported that the Anti-Defamation League and Temple Israel, Boston’s largest synagogue, had been pushing the ISB to explain Fitaihi’s writings for more than half a year and were disappointed with the group’s response.
That same day the Globe story ran, the ISB responded with a defiant written statement that defended Fitaihi’s writings and complained that the Boston media’s broader coverage of the ISB — including stories on the group’s purported ties to Muslim extremists and its bargain-basement purchase of city land for its Roxbury mosque — suggested “malicious intent,” a key legal criterion in proving defamation.
But shortly after, the ISB softened its tone. In a letter to Boston Mayor Tom Menino the following week, the group’s directors stated that they “unequivocally condemn all hateful, insensitive, and divisive statements,” and voiced regret that previous ISB explanations of Fitaihi’s writings hadn’t been more emphatic.
Instead of petering out, however, tensions between the ISB and its critics escalated. In February 2005, Yousef Abou-Allaban, the chair of the ISB’s board of directors, sued TV station WFXT — where Wells was now working, and where he continued to cover the ISB — for defamation. Three months later, Osama Kandil, chair of the ISB’s board of trustees, filed a second suit targeting both WFXT and the Herald. And in October 2005, these suits were folded into a third, more expansive lawsuit — one that included the David Project and Citizens for Peace and Tolerance, two local activist groups that had been vocal ISB critics. The third suit contended that the ISB was the victim of a sort of vast anti-Islamic conspiracy — one which, notably, involved two high-profile Boston media outlets.