Menino's mosque

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 24, 2008

Despite stonewalling by the BRA and a lack of responsiveness by the mayor's office, it has been possible to outline the contours of the mosque deal.

Central to that deal is one long-time BRA staffer, Muhammad Ali-Salaam.

Ali-Salaam, who is still a BRA employee, worked out many details of the mosque project for the developers. His desire to get the mosque built was intense. Many have said that Ali-Salaam's dual role as both a mosque advocate and a BRA referee represents a clear conflict of interest.

Ali-Salaam has been actively involved in development projects all over Boston. City officials and developers speak of him in positive terms. In fact, one former BRA official speculates that few, if any, may have questioned Ali-Salaam's actions on behalf of the mosque, because of the level of respect he enjoys.

Still, even many of those who praise him think that his actions raise serious questions about whether Ali-Salaam, a Panamanian-born convert to Islam described by sources as devout, was working for the city's best interests, or the mosque developers'.

As Ali-Salaam's role later became controversial, the city downplayed his involvement in the project. But that claim is contradicted by internal BRA documentation, which shows him personally assisting and negotiating on behalf of the mosque developers — and often then recommending those terms or steps to the BRA board. Like others at the BRA, Ali-Salaam declined to speak with the Phoenix.

A Roxbury imam says that Ali-Salaam was "instrumental" in making the mosque happen. Another well-connected local Muslim calls him "the catalyst for this whole thing."

In fact, Ali-Salaam's involvement in the mosque plans predates the ISB, which became involved in the late 1990s. Documentation and interviews confirm that Ali-Salaam was pushing for a mosque to be built on that land even before the original Roxbury mosque leaders — a cooperative entity called the Muslim Council of Boston (MCB) — first proposed the idea to the BRA in 1988.

Then-mayor Raymond Flynn recalls first hearing of the idea around that time. "I called [former BRA director] Stephen Coyle, and found that a fellow who was working for the BRA" — who Flynn later learned was Ali-Salaam — "was making some independent inquiries on his own about possible land. . . . It was just an idea and Muhammad [was] pushing some things around."

By 1996, however, it was clear that the Roxbury-based MCB group could not raise the funds for the project, then estimated to cost $7 million. Islamic law forbids interest-bearing loans, so the money needed to come directly from donors — and Greater Roxbury in the mid '90s was not overflowing with wealth. That October, Ali-Salaam sent a letter warning the MCB that, if they didn't start showing progress, BRA officials intended to incorporate the parcel into the new park it was building on the abutting land.

The MCB asked to be de-designated by the BRA — officially dropped from the plans for the parcel — so that the city could find other use for the land. That, apparently, was not the answer Ali-Salaam had wanted. (View our Timeline of events for more on the mosque's development.)

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Outsiders
The Roxbury-based MCB group was never de-designated. And no other developers were given a chance to propose new uses for the land — even though a BRA staff memo suggests that several development inquiries had come in, and more were expected.

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