Boston Bombings Leave Muslim Groups Struggling To Respond

As details continue to come out about the reported ties of suspected Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to radical Islam, and their visits to a small mosque in Cambridge, Mass., American Muslims are having conversations about how to regroup after an event many believe threatens to overshadow the years of progress they've made since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Unlike the Catholic church, some Jewish groups and many Protestant denominations, most strains of Islam have no official hierarchy, leaving individual leaders and national Islamic advocacy groups to respond to the events in Boston: Do they condemn extremism and vow to root out radical Islam and leave it at that? Do they focus on emphasizing that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and patriotic, and discredit the Tsarnaevs as outliers? Do they double down on interfaith efforts to promote mosques as integral parts of faith communities, or do they amp up relationships with law enforcement and increase self-policing efforts? Perhaps the answer requires a mix of these.

At the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Imam Suhaib Webb has spent hours this week speaking to news reporters to denounce radical Islam while working behind the scenes with Jewish and Christian clergy to counter what he sees as as a potential backlash against Muslims in the bombings' aftermath.

"I am deeply concerned that people are going to see us as complacent," said Webb, who invited Muslim first-responders to a vigil at his Roxbury Crossing mosque this week. "Many of our masjids are run by individuals who are well-intentioned but don't have the institutional know-how to respond to these kinds of things and to promote the good work they are doing."

"Muslim communities are pre-pubescent in America when it comes to running institutions," he added. "I think we grew after 9/11, and we are going to grow now."

Since the attacks, Webb has organized counseling services and relief volunteers in addition to the memorial for victims. His mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, has volunteered its executive director to be a media spokesman for the Islamic Society of Boston, where the now-deceased Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly lashed out against sermons that celebrated Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King, Jr. The two mosques are sister organizations, with the same owners but separate administrations, and the Islamic Society of Boston has been overwhemeled with hundreds of phone calls and emails since it confirmed the Tsarnaevs' attendance there.

Although the Boston bombing suspects attended the Cambridge mosque, officials have not linked their alleged actions to its influence. Mosque officials said in a statement this week that the Tsarnaevs were "neither members nor regular attendees" and that they "never exhibited any violent sentiments." An Associated Press report has linked Tamerlan Tsarnaev's alleged radicalization to his friendship with a vaguely described Albanian Muslim convert called "Misha," who reportedly influenced Tsarnaev's decisions to quit boxing, stop studying music and turn toward radical Islamic websites.

While Webb and many imams have promoted their interfaith efforts and increased media outreach, Imam Shafayat Mohamed of Darul Uloom Islamic Institute in Pembroke Pines, Fla., said he is making similar moves and also taking a different approach after the attacks.

When he leads the prayer service Friday, Mohamed plans to tell the hundreds of worshippers at the suburban Miami mosque to watch for those who "contaminate the mosque with their radical influence" and to "be careful of those making anti-American remarks that we need to reprimand."

Though it's not uncommon for mosques to have contact with the FBI and law enforcement authorities in the post-9/11 era, regular on-site policing can be more controversial. But Mohamed, who also runs an Islamic school and Al-Hikmat, a media company that distributes magazines and recorded sermons in the U.S. and the Caribbean, advocates just such tactics.

"I think we need to not only denounce terrorism verbally, which we have, but imams and leaders need to make that extra effort in eradicating the radicalism they find," he said. "I see these guys saying anti-Christian or anti-American things at my mosque sometimes, and we need to get them out."

He offered examples of congregants who have argued against allowing time off from his Islamic school for winter and spring break, for example, because the dates correspond with Christmas and Easter. A few years ago, he hired a police officer to stand outside Friday services: "Not to direct traffic," he said, "but in case any bad radical Muslim guy gets up."

In Washington, D.C., the civil rights advocacy group Council of American-Islamic Relations recently convened an emergency press conference at the National Press Club, telling reporters that Muslims would "never allow ourselves to be hijacked" by radical Islam, and the group has blanketed news outlets with statements touting statistics about the the rarity of U.S.-grown jihad.

But CAIR also has honed in on a particular message in interviews and news releases: Islam shouldn't be blamed for terrorism like the bombings in Boston, and Muslims and Sikhs, who are often misidentified as Muslim, need to protect themselves against retaliatory attacks. There have been at least two such reported incidents since the bombings in Boston.

“We believe it is a positive sign that the vast majority of Americans have rejected the type of guilt by association advocated by extremist commentators seeking to exploit the tragic events in Boston to further their personal agendas,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad, in a statement this week. “As a nation, we have learned to judge people based on their actions, not on their faith or ethnicity.”