Separate Cultures

The cultural divide between African-American and immigrant Muslims
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 19, 2008

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In the late 1980s, when the plans for the mosque were first taking shape, it was intended to be developed by and for a primarily black Muslim population in Greater Roxbury. The group, the Muslim Council of Boston, that formed to do the project made that clear in its proposal to the BRA in 1992: "Today the largest community of Muslims can be found in Boston among the African-American community."

But that changed dramatically when the BRA handed the project to the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) in 1998.

The Sunni version of the faith practiced in the ISB's Cambridge mosque is not significantly different from what you find at Masjid Al-Quran on Intervale Street or the Masjid Al-Hamdulillah on Shawmut Avenue. But culturally, the two groups are strikingly dissimilar. (Another Roxbury mosque, under the Nation of Islam umbrella, is very different, and has not been involved with the project at any stage.)

"These two parts" of the American Sunni Muslim community "don't automatically or systematically talk to each other," says Jocelyn Cesari, director of Harvard University's Islam in the West program. "It's very different, in terms of education, lifestyle — everything."

"Boston is the only place where a group of immigrants from the Middle East are building a mosque in the middle of a black neighborhood," says Cesari. "It would be the first in America to try to mix the two in one mosque."

A few similar projects are in the works elsewhere — including "megachurch"-style mosques with branch locations, found in central Florida and in the Washington, DC area. But a working model like the one envisioned in Roxbury remains theoretical for now.

A BU graduate student, Stephen Young, found evidence of the divide between Arab and black Muslims in his generally sympathetic just-published PhD dissertation on the ISB culture.

One ISB member, critical of what he called "racism among Muslims," told Young that the American Muslim community has an "ethnic pecking order," with Arabs at the top, followed by South Asians, then African blacks, and finally African-American blacks. Others made similar observations.

"There is a sense in some of the Muslim black community . . . that they are pushed aside by the immigrant Muslim faction," Young told the Phoenix.

When the Muslim American Society of Boston took over the project in 2007, and reconstituted the mosque's board of directors, there was little pretense at reflecting the diversity of the local Muslim community — the huge Pakistani or Lebanese populations, for example, let alone African-Americans. Five of the eight new directors were Middle Eastern (three Egyptians, one Syrian, and one Kuwaiti). One is Somali, one is of Indian descent raised in Zambia and Nigeria, and one is an American-born convert.

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