By Jay Lindsay
Saturday, March 25, 2006; B09
BOSTON -- The groundbreaking for a towering new mosque in this city's Roxbury neighborhood was like a sigh of relief for local Muslims.
After a decade of delays, Muslims who had worshiped in mosques so cramped that some were forced to pray in parking lots looked forward to sharing the massive building. They also welcomed the community's pledges of unity -- barely a year after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"This center will defy the stereotype that 'Muslims don't build things. They just tear down things,' " said Zakiyah Bilal, a local Muslim who attended the November 2002 ceremony.
Now, more than three years later, the Mosque and Cultural Center is unfinished, and funding has dried up. News reports linking the mosque's builder, the Islamic Society of Boston, to Muslim extremists have led to defamation suits. A project that was supposed to signal openness has become a symbol of chronic mistrust.
"What has happened . . . has been very public and very damaging," said Salma Kazmi, assistant director of the Islamic Society.
Planning for the $24 million mosque began in the early 1990s, then took a major step ahead in 2000 with a deal in which the Islamic Society acquired its project site from the city for $175,000 and in-kind contributions. (Yet another lawsuit stemming from the project alleges that the price was so far below market value that it amounts to an illegal government endorsement of a religion.)
About a year after the groundbreaking, the Boston Herald wrote the first reports connecting the Islamic Society to extremists, including Abdurahman Alamoudi, one of the society's founders. Alamoudi is serving 23 years in prison after a 2004 conviction for illegal financial dealings with Libya. After his guilty plea, the Department of Justice called Alamoudi "a major player in the financial support of terrorism."
The writings of a society board member, Walid Ahmad Fitaihi, also came under scrutiny, including articles in which Fitaihi called Jews "murderers of the prophets" and said they will be "scourged" because of their "oppression, murder, and rape of the worshipers of Allah."
The reports also explored a link to Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, a Sunni cleric who was offered a position on the society board in 1993 and promoted the mosque in a 2002 fundraising video. Qaradawi has since issued a fatwa that unborn Jews should be killed because they'll grow up to join the Israeli army. He also supports suicide bombings in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq.
Critics say the Islamic Society never explained such ties or distanced itself from hateful rhetoric. Then, they allege, it punished private citizens who were asking legitimate questions about the society and the new mosque by including them in a defamation suit filed last year against news outlets.
"This is really an attempt, and not an unsuccessful attempt, to terrify people," said Jeffrey Robbins, an attorney for several defendants.
The Islamic Society's attorney, Howard Cooper, said the society is acting in self-defense after a smear campaign designed to undermine the mosque project. Cooper said that the society has repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism and that its alleged connections to extremists don't exist.
"My clients are victims of overaggressive, intimidating intolerance, nothing less than that," he said.
According to the society's court filings, Alamoudi hasn't been associated with it for years. Between that time and his arrest, he was an invited guest of the Clinton and first Bush White Houses, according to court papers. An FBI spokeswoman also said no one in the society's leadership has ever been charged with a federal crime.
"It seems to me that, if the society is accused of being linked to Alamoudi, then Presidents Bush and Clinton must also be associated with him -- which demonstrates the absurdity of the claim," Kazmi said in an affidavit filed in court.
The Islamic Society said it had nothing to do with Fitaihi's statements, and Kazmi said they led the society to adopt a values statement clearly condemning anti-Semitism.
In an affidavit filed by Jamal Badawi, a professor emeritus at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Badawi said the statements, properly understood in the Arabic in which they were written, are criticisms of Israeli policies in the Palestinian conflict, not a condemnation of all Jews.
The society said it no longer is connected to Qaradawi, who was offered a place on the board before he became controversial. Asked why the society later enlisted Qaradawi to promote the project, Kazmi said in an interview that, in the Middle East, Qaradawi is widely considered a moderate with appeal to those the society hoped would support the mosque. No Muslim scholar is considered infallible, she said, and people subscribe to some of Qaradawi's views while rejecting what they find unacceptable.
Steve Emerson, author of a book about Muslim extremism, dismisses such explanations. The fact the society would willingly associate with Qaradawi shows there is a problem, said Emerson, who was a source for the media stories and is named in one of the defamation suits.
"If I had somebody on my board saying all blacks should be lynched, I don't think I'd say, 'Well, I like his point on remedial reading,' " Emerson said.
An offer by the Islamic Society this month to resolve the defamation lawsuits through mediation hasn't been acted on. And interfaith talks between the society and local Jewish groups ended.
Kazmi said donors are scared to be linked to the mosque because of the controversy. More than a year after the mosque was supposed to be completed, the red brick building is a shell, with construction frozen about $4 million short in the $14 million first phase.
Next to it, the final piece of a 125-foot minaret sits on the ground.