Area residents of various religious backgrounds gathered in Roxbury last weekend to celebrate the inauguration of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), an event that Mayor Thomas M. Menino said was not only the ceremonial opening of a building that has been in use for months, but also an official welcome of the Muslim community to Boston.
“I want to welcome them to our city — they are a growing part of our city,” Menino said during last Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony at the center’s Malcolm X Boulevard home. “We can’t be a city that separates ourselves, we have to be a city that builds bridges and that’s what we are doing today.”
The mayor and the other elected officials expressed excitement for what many in attendance last Friday repeatedly referred to as a cultural center — not just a mosque.
Already labeled as the largest center of its kind in the New England area, the ISBCC plans to emphasize education as well as provide a broad range of social services to both the local Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
“The plan is, at the ISBCC, to establish at least elementary to middle school education, and therefore a foundation for high school,” said Imam Abdullah Faaruuq, who serves as the Muslim chaplain in Northeastern University’s Office of Spiritual Life.
“I am first a Christian, and Islam embraced me as such,” Faaruuq added. “Islam continues to embrace people of all faiths throughout the world.”
The ISBCC has already implemented interfaith projects with local Christian and Jewish organizations and, as part of its promise to serve as an outward-looking American Muslim institution, plans to develop partnerships with Harvard University and Roxbury Community College, the center’s neighbor.
The center’s inauguration comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s recent speech at Cairo University in Egypt. Obama attempted to build a bridge between the Muslim world and the United States, hoping to foster a deeper cultural relationship and de-emphasize anti-Muslim sentiments. After extending a greeting by using the Arabic phrase “Assalamu Alaikum,” Obama discussed the culture clash that has developed into a tense battle between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
“Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims,” Obama said, before saying, “America is not at war with Islam.”
Perhaps no one in the federal government is better suited to discuss the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world than U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who has represented Minnesota’s Fifth District in Minnesota since taking office on Jan. 4, 2007. That day, he became the first Muslim member of Congress.
Ellison, who delivered the keynote address at last Saturday’s inauguration dinner at the Boston Marriott Copley Place Hotel, converted to Islam at the age of 19 while a student at Wayne State University in his hometown of Detroit. He graduated from The University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, and noted in his remarks that even though he was raised Catholic, he grew up in a household that encouraged inclusion of all faiths and varying expressions of religious freedoms.
During his speech, Ellison stressed the need to view the ISBCC as a “space,” not a “clubhouse,” to truly welcome people of all faiths.
“A clubhouse implies ‘members only,’” Ellison repeated.
To better serve the community and assist in improving U.S.-Muslim relations, Ellison urged those in attendance to ensure that the ISBCC represents itself as a platform for service. He also emphasized the importance of Muslims making their presence felt in the democratic decision-making process.
“Will you discuss constitutional rights, human rights or health care rights at the center?” Ellison asked.
Ellison said he sees the ISBCC as a wonderful tool for starting a conversation in Greater Boston about improving the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
“Now people don’t have to get in an airplane and fly eight hours to reach the Muslim world — you just need to go around the block,” the congressman said. “And that is something Boston, New England, the United States and the entire world can benefit from.”
Ellison said he hopes that the ISBCC will invite people of all faiths, colors and cultures into the center, fostering dialogue on culture, art, history and pressing issues.
“Issues cannot be solved by one religion, one race or culture — we need all voices,” he said. “This new space offers an opportunity as a place where people can come from diverse backgrounds to work on these issues.”
Since plans of building the mosque first entered discussion more than 20 years ago, the project has traveled an uneasy, sometimes controversial path to completion.
A crowd of about 35 protesters stood across the boulevard from the ribbon-cutting ceremony last Friday afternoon, silently holding signs that read “Prayer, Yes — Extremism, No.” Tom Trento, executive director of the Florida Security Council, said he had traveled to Boston to assist Dr. Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, and others in a demonstration protesting against what they claim is an extreme Islamist ideology promoted by the leaders of the new ISBCC.
In response to the allegations, Faaruuq told the Banner, “The center is not hiding anything.”
“The center is there to serve everybody — [it] is African American in its inception, but certainly Muslim in its conception, and it has always been there to serve everyone,” he said. “It is not a ploy or a guise — if that were the case, it’s fooled a lot of people … that is just simply not the case.”