For months, no member of the mosque's current leadership would speak with the Phoenix
for this story. Executive director Bilal Kaleem, who finally agreed to an interview at the mosque this past week, attributed his reluctance to what he perceives as unfair treatment by the media in the past. "I haven't had the best of experiences with things relating to the mosque," he says.
He's referring primarily to a series of articles in the BostonHerald and reports on WFXT that suggested links between the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) and funders of Islamic extremists. The ISB's response has been wildly disproportionate to the perceived offense: suing 17 people and entities for libel and defamation. The lawsuit was eventually dropped, but the bitterness toward the media is evident in the ISB's literature and in conversations with members. Earlier this month, at the national Muslim American Society (MAS) convention in Hartford, mosque fundraiser Anwar Kazmi gave a presentation titled "Media Onslaught and Our Community: Lessons from the ISB Case."
"They are very shell-shocked" by the media coverage, says Father Raymond G. Helmick of Boston College, who tried to encourage interfaith efforts toward accepting the mosque, through the Interreligious Center on Public Life. "There was an elaborate campaign to have the Herald and FOX 25 make these attacks."
But it is also true that ISB and MAS leaders have, through the media, consistently misled the public. They have overstated the state of their finances, understated the cost of the project, given unrealistic opening dates, and even exaggerated the number of Muslims that the mosque might serve.
Kaleem claims that there are 70,000 Muslims in the Boston area, and 200,000 in Massachusetts. The Phoenix can find no basis for these figures, which are many times higher than every other estimate.
Most estimates, including an in-depth study from the Pew Research Center earlier this year, put the total number of Muslims in all of Massachusetts roughly between 25,000 and 35,000. That likely translates into somewhere in the neighborhood of 8000 to 10,000 Sunni Muslims within an hour or so of the Roxbury mosque — many of whom will go to a mosque for only a few major occasions a year, if at all.
That lines up pretty well with the 4000 or so who have typically attended special holy-day services, held jointly in recent years by area mosques at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, across the street from the new mosque.