Menino's mosque

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 24, 2008

Despite some early success in raising funds, the mosque still owes at least $200,000 to contractors for work already performed, and has no money to finish the job. A lien was placed against the property earlier this year by a contractor who has not been fully paid. It also owes $1 million in loans to various private and commercial leaders. And these incurred costs are just for the project's still-incomplete first phase.

The mosque leaders have blamed their inability to raise needed funds on public controversy that has seen allegations of ties to extremists and anti-Semites.

That controversy first erupted behind closed doors in 2003, when a member of the Roxbury Community College Foundation board of trustees questioned the mosque project in letters to Menino and mayoral associates. A Roxbury resident backed by the Somerville-based pro-Israel David Project — which monitors Islamist extremism — filed what was to be an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the project.

Extensive media coverage ensued in 2004, which in turn led to a libel suit filed by the mosque against the Boston Herald, WFXT, the David Project, and others. That suit was dropped last year without resolution.

While the heat has decreased, controversy still simmers. The David Project has sued the BRA, alleging that it has withheld records that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This action is ongoing. The BRA has told the judge trying the case that all relevant e-mails have disappeared.

Meanwhile, the mosque has reinstated to its board a man whose anti-Semitic statements led to enormous public pressure for his resignation. The Phoenix has learned that, subsequent to his reappointment, that man donated $250,000 to the mosque.

Despite this controversy, the mosque's funding problem long predates the airing of those charges.

In fact, before the BRA approved the final sale of land in 2003, it knew that the mosque was strapped for cash. BRA knowledge of the mosque's unfavorable financial position came before the 2001 terrorist attacks. After 9/11, a challenging fundraising job became even more difficult, as Middle Eastern donors became reluctant to give.

The city went through with the sale, despite evidence that the group's hope of paying for the elaborate mosque was unrealistic.

There is reason to believe that the mosque leaders are attempting to guide a more tolerant, progressive path with their new facility: they are, for one example, allowing women to pray in the same room with men if they choose. This is a reversal of the orthodoxy practiced in most area Sunni mosques.

But while the community watches to see whether this new facility grows more inclusive or more conservative and separate, questions remain unanswered about why the city government went through so much effort — seemingly against its own policies and regulations at times — to facilitate a project that had no adequate funding, questionable community benefit, and uncomfortable associations with extremists.

Inside job
It is the involvement of city officials — backed by the strong support of Menino and the now scandal-tinged state senator Dianne Wilkerson — that distinguishes this project from the many churches, synagogues, mosques, and other facilities that are built and expanded all the time.

The BRA declined numerous Phoenix requests for interviews, and ignored questions submitted in writing. Menino's office likewise declined interview and information requests.

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