BOSTON >> Boston’s Muslim community has been once again thrust into the spotlight as the death penalty trial of convicted marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev nears its conclusion amid rising concerns of terrorist recruitment in America.
Newspaper op-eds, advertisements and social media posts have highlighted connections between Boston-area mosques and terrorists and suspected terrorists, despite efforts locally to denounce them.
Tsarnaev, who grew up in nearby Cambridge, occasionally prayed at the neighborhood mosque with his now-dead older brother and accomplice, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Boston is also one of three cities – along with Los Angeles and Minneapolis – where the Obama administration is piloting a controversial new program to tackle extremist group recruitment before it takes root.
Muslim worshippers expressed frustration this week that the local community continues to be painted with the same broad brush.
“Blaming an entire mosque just based on a couple of radical people that don’t represent them really is unfair,” said Rania Masri, of Quincy, just before Friday’s prayer service at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, a towering brick mosque in the city’s Roxbury neighborhood. “This isn’t a small, tight-knit community. It represents so many different cultures and people from all around the world. The mosque, as an entity, can’t represent all of them.”
Local opponents and national pundits, though, continue to fault the broader community.
In February, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based nonprofit group, took out a large ad in The Washington Times featuring pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers and other terrorists or suspected terrorists with alleged ties to the Islamic Society of Boston and other area mosques.
The ad asked: “Why is Boston a hub for violent extremism?”
Earlier this month, the author and former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali made similar connections in a Boston Globe op-ed.
In a statement, Americans for Peace and Tolerance said it is concerned that the Islamic Society of Boston’s teachings are radicalizing Boston’s historically moderate Muslim community.
“As our advertisement describes, over the past decade, 12 of the ISB’s leaders or worshippers have been either killed, are in jail, or are fugitives because of their role in Islamic terrorist activity,” the group said.
Maaria Assami, of Burlington, complained that churches and other religious institutions where other terrorists may have worshipped don’t receive the same sort of scrutiny. “Islam has always been the cliché bad guy,” she said. “So even if (Tsarnaev) had just passed by the mosque, it would have still been all our fault.”
Local Muslim leaders acknowledge it’s been challenging to fight back against detractors.
“We need to get better at becoming louder and saying ‘Hey, that’s not us.’ We’re your neighbors, your co-workers,” Nichole Mossalam, of the Islamic Society of Boston’s affiliated mosque in Cambridge, said recently.
The intense coverage of the Tsarnaev trial and the second anniversary of the April 15 attack, which killed three people and injured hundreds more, has provided an opportunity to reinforce that message.
Before Friday prayers, the Boston mosque held an open house with the theme “Still Boston Strong.” Some 50 officials representing the U.S. Department of Justice, the F.B.I., Boston Police, politicians, and other religious and civic groups attended.
“We just really wanted to open up the doors and showcase who we are and the spirit of Boston Strong that exists here in Boston and how we really have stuck together,” explained Yusufi Vali, the mosque’s executive director.
Worshippers, a number of whom weren’t aware of the open house, applauded the effort.
“People are afraid of the unknown, and the propaganda they get is all so negative,” said Haseeb Hosein, of Boston. “If they would stop and look, we’re just like Jews, Christian or any God-fearing people. We don’t condone violence.”
Most said anti-Muslim backlash has been minimal. A few recalled a February incident in nearby Revere, where threatening, anti-Muslim notes were scattered near a subway station, prompting law enforcement and faith leaders to condemn the actions in a community forum.
“The majority of Bostonians know better,” says Shannon Erwin, co-founder of the Muslim Justice League, a local activist group. “Most have stood with us as Muslims and Bostonians and recognized that’s those things are one and the same.”
Christian and Jewish leaders have also come to the defense of the Islamic Society of Boston, which has borne the brunt of anti-Muslim scrutiny.
“This is a good, civic-minded community that’s engaged in Boston,” said Rev. Burns Stanfield, president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization said at Friday’s open house. “What’s being spread is, frankly, just wrong.”
But the unwelcome attention is not expected to diminish anytime soon: next week, Tsarnaev’s lawyers begin their arguments for sparing the 21 year old ethnic Chechen from death.
Among their potential witnesses is Ismail Fenni, the acting imam at the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque.