Menino's mosque

The bizarre story behind the construction of Boston's most controversial building
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 24, 2008



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Most locals concede that getting anything of substance accomplished in Boston is a Herculean task. Residents have all but embraced the principle of civic inaction with a perverse kind of local pride. In the end, who you know is probably more important than what you are trying to do. And there is no doubt that little is accomplished without the approval and support of the mayor, Thomas M. Menino.

So it is with the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) near the intersection of Tremont Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Better known as the Roxbury mosque, the ISBCC has been in the works for more than 20 years. A few weeks ago it finally opened its doors for prayer — five years late, millions over budget, and still far from complete.

While the story of the building of the Roxbury mosque may not be worthy of a Hollywood epic, it does contain the stuff of a good television drama: community intrigue, religious conflict, media controversy, foreign money, suspicions of extremist ties, and once-cocksure public officials who have since retreated into a zone of silence.

Mayor Menino, in a fit of multicultural ecumenicalism, approved the sale of city-owned land to the mosque for the bargain basement — and still controversial — price of $175,000, plus the promise of in-kind services, including upkeep of nearby parks. The predictable uproar that arose in the wake of not only selling land well below market rates, but also selling it to a religious institution in contravention of the supposed separation of church and state, was supposed to be muffled by making the complex available for community use. But oops — that never happened.

The promised community facilities for non-congregant use still have not been built. An entire second phase of the project, meant to contain most of those functions, will not happen at all in the foreseeable future. The failure of the mosque project to conform to its original plans represents a broken promise between the mosque developers and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).

Originally intended to minister to an urban congregation of African-American Muslims, the mosque project was turned over by the city, with no fanfare and little notice, to the control of suburban-based Muslims of largely Saudi Arabian heritage: the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB), which more recently became the Muslim American Society of Boston (MAS-Boston). Perhaps the city believed, incorrectly, that one Muslim community could easily step in for another. In fact, the two groups are quite different.

If it was not, however, for the generosity of conservative Middle Eastern Muslims (often a euphemism for those who are hostile to or suspicious of Westerners and Americans), the mosque never would have been built. Most of the cost, estimated at $15.6 million by MAS-Boston, has come from Egyptian, Saudi, and other Arab donors.

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