Menino's mosque

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 24, 2008

Black, native-born Greater Roxbury Muslims were conspicuously absent from the ISB's literature, architectural plan, and public comments, says Mahdee; likewise from advisory boards or planning bodies.

Losing the involvement of Roxbury's black Muslims was a huge mistake, says Flynn. He had been supportive of the project, he says, in large part because his experience with Mahdee's Intervale Street mosque — back in Flynn's days working as a probation officer — convinced him of the good they could do for their community. "These were all local people," Flynn tells the Phoenix.

By contrast, only one of the ISB's six trustees was living in the country when the mosque broke ground: Mohammed Attawi, who had moved here from Pennsylvania to lead the project. The other five lived in the Middle East.

The Menino administration heightened that sense of exclusion for the original, Roxbury-based group at a 2002 groundbreaking ceremony, say Mahdee and several others. Nobody from any of the existing Roxbury mosques — those who had started and have continued to support the project — were invited to take part. That still leaves a bitter taste, says Imam Abdullah Farruuq of Masjid Al-Hamdulillah, who is trying to remain optimistic as he works to build bridges with the current team. ( For more on the divide between African-American and immigrant muslims, read Separate Cultures.)

Money or no money
When the ISB came into the picture in 1998 as the potential new designee, it was not simply looking to continue the original Roxbury group's path. The ISB immediately scrapped the design, and commissioned a new, more expansive plan from a well-known Saudi mosque designer. The cost estimate nearly doubled, to $13 million.

To fund it, Ali-Salaam personally sought out the United Bank of Kuwait, which had opened a US branch called al-Manzil to specialize in "shariah financing" — essentially, buy/lease plans to work around Muslim religious strictures that prevent charging or paying interest on loans.

Al-Manzil (in a letter addressed to Ali-Salaam that he asked to be re-addressed to the ISB representative to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest) tentatively offered to finance roughly two-thirds of the estimated $13 million project. Internal BRA documents suggest that this offer was critical to the BRA's decision to give ISB the substitute designation in 1998.

But the al-Manzil funding deal never happened: the ISB instead decided to rely on its members' overseas contacts to raise the entire sum from private donors. That decision was based on political concerns, according to David Shlosh, who was the al-Manzil executive handling the discussions at the time; the biggest concern being that funding from the United Bank of Kuwait "would make it seem too 'Islamic.'?"

Ironically, the decision meant an even greater dependence upon big-dollar donations from wealthy Middle Eastern Muslims — who would end up contributing more than $7 million to the Roxbury mosque, according to Charles Jacobs, who until recently led the David Project. Jacobs, a critic of the mosque, obtained records of the wire transfers during the libel and defamation lawsuit brought against the David Project and others by the ISB.

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