(As appeared on JSONs)
The sharp contrast between Cambridge’s colonial style homes and the blue mosaic walls of the Prospect Street mosque draws attention from blocks away. However, the mosque continues to draw more and more attention for reasons other than aesthetics.
Some news outlets have reported that up to 10 alleged terrorists have worshipped at the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque. Despite mosque leaders trying to dispel their alleged connection with extremism, a recent wave of attacks connect the mosque with Ahmad Abousamra, a man tied to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and charged with providing and attempting to provide material support to terrorists; conspiracy to kill in a foreign country; conspiracy; and false statements.
In a written statement, the mosque states, “The Islamic Society of Boston mosque unequivocally and strongly condemns ISIS. The barbarism with which they have treated innocent civilians, is contrary to all norms of civilized behavior and a deep affront to the teachings of our faith… We have and will always continue to fight against such extremism.”
Many of the articles refer to FBI reports connecting the mosque to known terrorists.
“No such report exists… Let’s be clear, we don’t investigate houses of worship. In fact we have an ongoing dialogue with community organizations and multicultural organizations that include mosques,” said Kristen Setera, FBI Boston spokesperson.
When confronted about the allegations, mosque leaders refer to their long history in Cambridge as proof of sincerity. Founded in 1981, the Islamic Society of Boston formed as an association of different Muslim student organizations at seven local universities. However, as the Muslim population in Boston grew, the Islamic Society of Boston became its own organization located in a renovated Knights of Columbus Hall on Prospect Street in Cambridge.
“Back in the early 90s there were not that many mosques around. In all of Boston, this was the most convenient for people to come and worship,” explained Imam Ismail Fenni.
Imam Ismail Fenni has served as the ISB’s Imam for about a year. Having lived in Massachusetts since 1981, he has watched the mosque grow over the years.
Today, the mosque serves approximately 50,000 Muslims in the Boston area, according to Deirdre DeBruyn of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project. This becomes apparent on prayer day in the back parking lot, where worshippers attend service on an overflow tarp no matter the weather. Over the years the mosque’s staff has expanded and shrunk, but its role as an contributor to the community has remained.
“It used to be very active until we had some understaffing issues; we’re just getting out of that,” said spokesperson Nichole Mossalam.
Mossalam has worked at the Islamic Society of Boston for almost two years, rising through the ranks from her original position as a part time secretary. She helps organize mosque events, run weekly programs, and handle media requests.
One of the programs Mossalam helps run is the mosque’s Islam 101 class. “It’s actually the first of its kind, geared toward non-Muslims, and teaches people who aren’t aware what Islam is all about. It’s really a catch all class for anyone who’s interested,” she said.
Aside from the class, the mosque offers tours and tailors each tour to the group’s needs. Groups consist of university students, interfaith groups, and most recently even a school for the blind.
The Islamic Society of Boston has also been extremely involved in the Cambridge community. They partner with the International Conference of Police Chaplain to participate in the Cambridge Police Chaplain Program. The program works to ensure there’s a police chaplain for all spiritualities in case of any crisis situations.
“The Cambridge Police Department started the program a year ago. We’re working to get the Imam certified as an official part of the program, hopefully next week,” said Director of the Cambridge Peace Commission Brian Corr.
The Islamic Society of Boston also works to put on a Ramadan Iftar at City Hall each year, a way to celebrate the break of fasting and bring the community together. This past year the event brought together people of many different faiths and political figures including the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh.
“I’ve been to a few different services there, and the message is always one of peace,” said Brian Corr.
The Islamic Society of Boston is currently working to bring back one of its most successful community outreach programs in the past, an Interfaith Roundtable. Mossalam said the monthly social would be open to the public and feature key local clergy leaders.
“It will give people a chance to see what’s unique about each faith, but also what’s the same,” said Mossalam.
“We want to be contributors. We want to reach out,” said Imam Fenni.
Through the years, the Islamic Society of Boston has worked with different ethnic and religious groups to bridge diversity and find ways to coexist peacefully. Rev. Christian Broccato of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church has worked with the Islamic Society of Boston on numerous projects.
“We’re all in this together. It’s not that different from what we do here. We pray, we work in the community, we educate, and we try to help people live good lives,” said Reverend Broccato.
In his response statement to the articles connecting the mosque with ISIS, Broccato writes, “As a member of the Cambridge community, I have no knowledge whatsoever of any wrong for which the ISB in Cambridge can be held responsible. If that were not true, I would not have invited the Imam and Nichole Mossalam to St. Peter’s to give a presentation and to lead a discussion on life at the mosque and the many opportunities they offer for prayer, education and service last year. I fully support them.”
As one of the largest Episcopal parishes in the neighborhood, the partnership with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church has been a strategic relationship for the mosque. The Islamic Society of Boston focuses on dynamic relationships such as these to further integrate with the community, according to the Imam.
“We’re hoping a day will come soon that Islam will be part of the mosaic of the ethnicity of this country,” said Imam Fenni.
The relationship between the houses of worship extends as far back as the inception of the Islamic Society of Boston. Before moving to Prospect Street, Muslims used to use St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to worship. These ties carried over through strenuous times like the Boston Marathon bombing, during which church members attended the peace vigil held by the mosque.
“Lots of us went to be in solidarity with them because they were getting hate mail, nasty phone calls, and all kinds of things, but it’s very easy for people to be mistrustful and to sort of lash out at innocent people,” said Broccato.
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church wasn’t the only community organization that stepped up to show support during a difficult time. Other community organizations, government officials, and everyday citizens reached out to the mosque.
“People were calling ahead of when news crews would land to give us warning. We got a lot of letters from people saying we know you’re hurting too,” said Mossalam.
Mossalam and other mosque members took those letters and placed them on the walls to show their constituents that the community was with them. She saved every note, and keeps them in their records to this day.
Imam Fenni reiterated how accommodating the city of Cambridge has been to the local Muslim faith. On Fridays, the holy day of prayer in Islam, the city doesn’t ticket overflow cars parked on the street with an Islamic Society of Boston ticket in the window.
Dr. Hussein Dayib, President of the Islamic Council of New England frequents the mosque for prayer when he has business in Boston.
“The mosque in Cambridge has become almost a second home for me here in the city. I always make it a point to pray here when I’m in town but that’s not the norm. I see a lot of new faces every time I go. Their constituency is somewhat fluid,” he said.
The Islamic Society of Boston has an open door policy. Due to the sheer size of their congregation, they do not track worshippers.
“The concept of congregation with Muslims is not the same. There is no concept of ‘members’ per say. There is no way to record the personal information or contact information. I may pray here one week, in Allston the next, and move on,” explained the Imam.
Mossalam claims a lot of those media reports repeat the same allegations reworded for copyright purposes. She says the push for those types of news stories come from anti-Islamic groups behind the scenes.
“For us, we just have to deal with it. People will have to come and know us and we will have to go and show them,” said Imam Fenni.
When asked about reporting suspicious behavior, Mossalam said the mosque has a policy in place. If someone displays seemingly dangerous behavior that crosses the line, they report it.
“It’s a tough call. And we leave that up to the Imam. If someone needs to be spoken with. The moment it crosses into a danger to themselves or the community, we report it to the authorities,” she said.
“We are ready to participate and stand by the city,” said Imam Fenni.