Inside Job

The role of the BRA's Muhammad Ali-Salaam in the mosque's development
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 19, 2008

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The conflict of interest between Muhammad Ali-Salaam's role with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and his close association with the mosque developers is captured in a telling exchange from a Parks & Recreation Commission transcript of a meeting that took place in February 2001. That meeting was meant to persuade the commission to approve the project, which it did two months later.

COMMISSIONER JUSTINE LIFF Muhammad, you've been saying "we" a lot, and sometimes you were talking about the Islam Society, and sometimes "we as BRA" . . .

ASSOCIATE COMMISSIONER SUSAN PARK He's mostly the Islam Society we think.

ALI-SALAAM Well this project is my life, no doubt about it, I make no apologies for it. But I have to be sensitive . . . that when I respond to questions I respond as a staff person, not as a member of the Islamic Society.

Developers and former BRA officials say it's not uncommon for city planners to get overly involved in the success of a project, particularly after working with a worthy community group for a long time. They call this "going native," and, sources say, occasionally city planners must be reined in. In this case, Ali-Salaam never was. He was simultaneously advising the mosque developers on negotiations with the city, and advising BRA officials on negotiations with the mosque developers.

Ali-Salaam also helped guide the plan through — and in some cases around — apparent roadblocks.

That sometimes took considerable maneuvering. For example, the parcel on which the mosque has been built was specifically designated for affordable housing, under a 1970 Urban Renewal Plan. The BRA nevertheless issued a request for proposals, back in 1992, seeking development as a "community facility" with "a desirable mix of religious, education, and cultural services," and awarded tentative designation to the original mosque group, the Muslim Council of Boston. The legal impediment, requiring housing on that site, remained until 2000, when the BRA and Boston Zoning Board quietly revised the plan (avoiding public discussion by ruling the change a "minor modification").

When the Muslim Council failed to move forward and asked to be de-designated from the project, it was Ali-Salaam, BRA documents show, who personally initiated a plan to transfer the tentative designation to a new group. That entity was led by Suheil Laher, a religious leader among MIT-centered Muslims, who worked with Ali-Salaam's son at a local software company.

Eventually, however, Ali-Salaam brought in the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) and helped transfer the designation to them.

He also helped raise funds overseas for the mosque, with the blessing of city officials, according to a memo newly discovered by the Phoenix.

The memo, written as an official BRA letter from Ali-Salaam to the ISB, discusses Ali-Salaam's plans for an upcoming trip to Dubai, which was authorized by then-BRA director Thomas O'Brien. The memo stipulated that Ali-Salaam would attend a five-night Architectural Review Conference, both "to represent the [mosque] project" and "to represent the City of Boston as an Emissary of Mayor Thomas M. Menino." He would then extend his trip for three days for fundraising.

"In order to take full advantage of the situation, I should schedule private meetings with select individuals who might be inclined to financially support the Project," wrote Ali-Salaam.

The memo outlines that the BRA would pay for the conference registration and five nights at the Jumeriah Beach Hotel, at an estimated cost of $1232. The ISB would pay for airfare, estimated at $1217. Ali-Salaam would pay for the additional three nights at the hotel, estimated at $342.

  Topics: News Features , Culture and Lifestyle, Religion, Tom Menino,  More more >
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