At 5 P.M. on a cold Saturday night in mid-January 2024, I walked into the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) on Malcolm X Boulevard. I was there to attend a fundraising gala where three black Muslims—two radical imams and a Boston city councilor—were scheduled to appear. Frankly, I was more than a little bit nervous. As editor of Focus on Western Islamism, a counter-Islamist website published by the Middle East Forum, I had written critically about all three of the scheduled speakers. Given what I had written, I expected that I’d be unceremoniously thrown out as soon as I showed my face in the banquet hall. It wouldn’t be a complete loss if I were thrown out. I could go home early, watch something on Netflix with my wife, write about my expulsion in an article about the confrontation the following week, and submit the $50 admission fee on my next expense report.
But before all that could happen, I at least had to find the room where the banquet was taking place. As I milled about the lobby of the ISBCC, I saw no signs pointing to the event, so I looked around for someone to ask. I walked toward a grim-faced man in his late sixties or early seventies who looked to be from South Asia to ask him if he knew where the banquet was but decided against it. He sported an orange beard, a style favored in Pakistan and by members of ISIS who aim to emulate the look of Muhammad, Islam’s founding prophet. I was pretty confident he wasn’t a member of ISIS, but he didn’t give off the vibe of someone who was a devotee of interfaith dialogue.
Eventually, I found another younger man, with a kinder, more welcoming face and no beard—orange or otherwise—and asked him where the banquet was. With unaffected graciousness, the man, whom I guessed to be from Pakistan, pointed to an elevator and told me to take it to the third floor of the mosque. I got into the elevator, which was occupied by two dark-skinned women wearing what I took to be niqabs, another sign of fervent Islamism.
In the confinement of the elevator, I started to question the wisdom of abandoning my calling as a keyboard warrior and attending an in-person event at the ISBCC. The mosque had its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group founded in the 1920s by an Egyptian preacher by the name of Hassan Al Banna. The organization and its offshoots, Hamas especially, have, over the years, vilified Jews, modernists, Jews, Westerners, Jews, unveiled women, Jews, secularists, and you guessed it, Jews—in a pretty vehement way. (Did I say the Muslim Brotherhood hates Jews? Just making sure.)
In response to the humiliations Muslims had endured at the hands of the West, and each other, during the first part of the 20th century, Al Banna declared that Islam is the solution and called for the ouster of secularist Muslim leaders in the Middle East and, ultimately, a defeat of the West. After Al Banna’s assassination in 1949, another Islamist theoretician, Sayd Qutb, took up the cause. He wrote an influential and hateful essay titled “Our Struggle with the Jews,” and carried on Al Banna’s quest for an Islamized world order. Qutb’s criticism of the Egyptian government didn’t sit well with President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who had him imprisoned and eventually killed for subversive activities.
The fact that at one time Yusef Al Qaradawi, the now-deceased spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, had been listed on the ISBCC’s board of directors wasn’t reassuring. This guy really didn’t like Jews. At one point before his death in 2022, Qaradawi notoriously declared that Hitler was an instrument of divine punishment against the Jews and that, hopefully, Muslims would inflict the next round of punishment against the Jews. “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers,” he said. Being in a place with such an antisemitic pedigree gave me the creeps.
Just to be clear, I am not a Jew, but I did play one on the Internet for close to two decades, most of which I spent working for an organization called the Committee for Accuracy and Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA). At CAMERA, I engaged in numerous struggle sessions with dimwitted Protestant “peace” activists who bragged about their churches’ role in the abolitionist and civil rights movements while ignoring Arab and Muslim massacres of Jews—and Christians—in the Middle East. But before working at CAMERA, I got my start at the Boston-based David Project Center for Jewish Leadership, an organization that in previous years had been locked in a legal fight with the ISBCC, and whose founder, Charles Jacobs, had publicized the mosque’s connection to Qaradawi. He was the guy who recruited me, a nice kid from a wealthy suburb of Boston, into the fight against Christian, Islamist, and secularist Jew-hatred, a fight which in recent years has morphed into a defense of the West against the onslaught of Islamism. I haven’t forgiven him since.
“Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Charles,” I thought to myself as the elevator doors opened into a foyer where a group of women sat behind a registration table. I approached the table and showed the ladies the ticket I had printed out at home. They asked me to sign my name and write my email into a spiral notebook, and I did. As I walked toward the room where the dinner tables were located, I was confronted with the imposing figure of Abdullah Faaruuq, the imam of the Mosque for Praising Allah, whose 50th anniversary was being feted that night. The moment of truth had arrived. He was wearing a long white robe and a matching skull cap. No denying it, he looked impressive.
“Hey, Imam Faaruuq! It’s me Dexter Van Zile,” I said. If I was going to get thrown out, I might as well get it over with. The living room couch beckoned.
“I remember you,” he said.
He had good reason to remember me. A few months before, I had highlighted his extremist tendencies in a piece about his mosque receiving nearly $400,000 in taxpayer funds despite his support for Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S. trained neuroscientist who, after attacking U.S. military and law enforcement personnel in Afghanistan in 2008, was convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder. The judge sentenced her to an 86-year stint in prison for her crimes. After the article was published, Faaruuq was nonplussed, texting me links to videos advocating for her release. “Show mercy and you will be shown mercy!” he texted me.
I also reported that while serving as a chaplain in Massachusetts prisons, Faaruuq had handed out Islamist propaganda—including tracts written by the aforementioned Sayed Qutb—to incarcerated Muslims. He once referred to the United States as “the land of the coward, [and] the home of the slave.” When I asked him if it was reasonable for taxpayers to give his mosque public funds, Faaruuq was dismissive, declaring his mosque got the same money everyone else got.
“The same funding that the Jews get for their synagogue or the churches get for their places of worship, we’ve gotten as well,” he said. “What am I supposed to do? Not take advantage of it?” I don’t like his ideology, but I admire his bluntness. It makes my job easy.
I waited for a moment and got the impression that he had decided to allow me to stay, so I sat down at a table at the back of the hall. I put my man purse, which included an SLR camera—which I did not use—and my walking stick (an affectation) on the sill of an interior window in a nearby wall. The hall was mostly empty and as attendees came in, they favored the tables at the front of the hall, near the podium. As I sat quietly alone at the table, the only white guy in a hall filling up with African Americans and dark-skinned immigrants, I asked myself what I had gotten myself into.
I was not there to establish my bona fides as a white liberal savior in training or to bask in the glory of being the only non-BIPOC person in a roomful of black and brown people. Hell no. I was cured of those impulses decades ago during a disastrous stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Congo. Instead, I was at the ISBCC to document the preaching of Islamist propaganda to my fellow Bostonians. That being said, I wasn’t going to go out of my way to broadcast my status as a fire-breathing counter-Islamist, at least not until after I had some food.
To distract myself, I looked at the program for the night’s events. In addition to advertisements from nearby halal restaurants and supermarkets, it included a history of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah, documenting its roots in the Nation of Islam, a religious movement that demonizes white people and Jews in some pretty egregious ways. The last two pages of the program displayed a full-page (mis-dated) ad calling for the boycott of Israeli goods and a poem that made two references to the suffering of the “people of Palestine.” The pro-boycott ad had a QR code for people to get more information about the evils of the Jewish state. Anyone looking for information about China’s ongoing oppression of the Uighurs? Well, they would have to look elsewhere.
Inserted into the program was a sheet promoting a renovation project at the mosque. In addition to more than doubling the amount of worship space to allow for 300 people to pray, the renovated facility would include an expansion of the pre-existing food pantry at the site and create 38 low-income affordable housing units on the property. The project was publicized under the name “New Madinah”—a reference to the (once half-Jewish) city in Saudi Arabia where Muhammad achieved political power in 622.
As I sat quietly looking at the program, Siraj Wahhaj walked in. He wore a long white robe and skull cap that matched Faaruuq’s. Upon entering the banquet hall, a Boston police officer, apparently charged with providing security for the event, came up to him with a beaming smile on his face. The two embraced and spoke to one another in Arabic, reciting what I interpreted to be ritual greetings, before the police officer said in English, “To protect you and hold you!”
Wahhaj strode to the front of the hall and sat next to Faaruuq at one of the tables. As I approached with my iPhone to take the picture of the two of them together, Wahhaj extended his hand, and I shook it before asking if it was OK to take a picture of the two of them together.
“No. No. Please don’t,” Faaruuq said. I went back to my table and sat down a bit crestfallen that I could not get a photo of the two of them together. It would have been a great picture, documenting the meeting of two of the most radical imams in the black Muslim community in the United States. Like Faaruuq, Wahhaj, who serves as imam of Taqwa Mosque in New York City, has a long history of promoting Islamist extremism. In addition to calling on his fellow Muslims to support jihad throughout the world, the New York imam has affirmed Islamic teachings regarding violence against homosexuals. And in the 1990s, he allowed Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh” who masterminded the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, to speak at Taqwa Mosque before the attack.
Things finally got going at 5:45 when Faaruuq addressed the crowd of several dozen, telling his listeners how honored and pleased he was that they had shown up. He then turned the microphone over to another imam who offered a reading from the Qur’an and interpretation of the passage. After the imam spoke, Faaruuq offered his own gloss on the passage just read. During his brief sermon, he told the audience that they were obligated to be the best people on the earth, show mercy to their fellow humans, and to not act like people who use divine writ to commit murder to drive people out of their land. He didn’t say who he was referring to, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t talking about Hamas’s October 7 Massacre, but Israel, an assessment he confirmed later during the banquet. As he spoke, a video played on the screen above his head, showing images of the planned renovation of the mosque and of prominent politicians such as former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh interacting with the mosque’s leaders.
After the Qur’anic recitation, Faaruuq spoke about the history of the mosque he founded, the central role it played in the religious life of Muslims in the neighborhood (“We’ve slaughtered animals in the basement!”) and plans for its renovation. After announcing that the food was not yet ready, he asked that his guests enjoy the plates of bread, hummus, and baba ghanoush being distributed as he spoke. At my table in the back, one of the two people to my right—a young man and a young woman in their twenties who, judging from their conversation, were involved in Boston politics—expressed uncertainty over which of the plates was hummus and which one was baba ghanoush. Being expert in such matters, I blithely pointed to the hummus, declaring, “That looks like Hamas.”
I blanched after hearing those words come out of my mouth. Here I am trying to keep a low profile at an event presided over by two radical Islamist imams—both of whom tower over me—and my subconscious mind betrays me by inserting the word of “Hamas” for hummus. For a brief moment, the faces of the two young politicos displayed expressions of dismay and startlement. Clearly, I had committed a faux pas by mentioning the name of a terror group that, 100 days before, massacred more than 1,200 Jews, inciting crowds to gather in capitals throughout the West in defense or celebration of the attack. To make matters worse, it happened again few minutes later when I declared my lifelong disdain for baba ghanoush. “I like the Hamas better!” (So much for my career as an undercover operative.)
Eventually, Faaruuq introduced the guest of honor, Muslim Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who told the crowd she had recently filed a resolution praising the imam for his leadership in the city. After reading the text of the resolution, which spoke of his “greatness,” “compassion,” and his commitment to the cause of education and fostering “goodwill,” a man in the audience yelled “Takbir!” which elicited cries of “Allahu akbar!” from the crowd. Anderson concluded her initial remarks by expressing hope that the imam would soon visit the Boston City Council where he would be given a copy of the certificate of appreciation.
Faaruuq, who at this point mistakenly thought Anderson was through talking, stepped in to speak about the diversity of the people in attendance. “Our community is filled with West Africans, East Africans, North Africans, and non-Africans. We got white people walking through here every day.” With a flourish, Faaruuq made it clear that his hospitality even makes room for Jews.
“Where’s my Jewish friend? Where’s Jerry Katz?” he asked, referring to a Jewish peace activist from the Boston area in attendance. Upon finding Katz in the crowd, dutifully wearing a kippah, Faaruuq declared, “He and I spent a great deal of time in India. He sent me to India!” he said, referring to an interfaith trip Katz organized a few years back.
“We have nothing against Jews,” Faaruuq continued. “There’s a difference between Jews and Zionists. We have to make a clear distinction about that because the religion of the Jews is Islam—under the leadership of Moses, peace be upon him. And Moses would never have allowed the kind of things that some people who do in his name or in the name of Jehovah.”
At this point, Faaruuq reined himself in. “This is an evening of peace. We even welcome the Moroccan people,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “As a matter of fact, there’s even a few African Americans in this place. And all are wealthy.” He went to declare that everyone in the room was African American because “something along the chain of the DNA that [we all] come out of Africa. …They talk about different races. There are no different races. We are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve… and because of that we are a family of people.”
Despite his efforts to dial it back, Faaruuq had revealed himself. With his remarks, Faaruuq had revealed an unseemly hostility toward Jews by following up on a line of attack he took in late 2023 when he declared that sovereign Jews (Zionists) “are so tainted by the evils of greed and wanting to control people that they don’t care anything about God or their fellow man.” Clearly, in Faaruuq’s mind, Katz was a good Jew, but those who defended themselves in Israel, those Zionists, well, they were bad Jews.
Faaruuq brought his Islamist mansplaining to an end after Anderson somehow indicated to him that she had more to say. “Oh, she has a speech! Excuse me.” As Anderson spoke, Faaruuq toured the hall and came over to the table where I was enjoying bread dipped in hummus. “Enjoying yourself?”
“I’m having a wonderful time,” I said before directing my attention to Anderson’s speech. After describing herself as a West African, an immigrant, a black woman, and a Muslim, she offered the usual bromides about the need for compassion and understanding and how she is fighting on behalf of the oppressed. Then, inevitably enough, she directed her rhetoric toward Israel and its attacks on Gaza, which have killed thousands of women and children, declaring that not only is the U.S. on the wrong side of the conflict, it is the wrong side of the conflict, asserting that the U.S. is complicit in Israel’s alleged crimes against the Palestinians living in Gaza.
“If you know someone who is on a murderous rampage and you keep buying the person’s weapons, you are as responsible for the results as they are,” she said.
In an apparent effort to allay any concerns people might have about any animus toward Israel, Anderson said that she condemns everyone, regardless of their faith, who persecutes people because of their race or religion. For some reason Anderson, who wept openly about the suffering of Palestinians at a ceasefire rally in Boston in early November of 2023, could not bring herself to even mention the rapes, murders, arson, and dismemberment of Jews—because they were Jews—perpetrated by Hamas 100 days before. She recounted the tragedy of Palestinians dying and losing their homes without acknowledging the Israelis, many of them children, still in captivity 100 days after their initial kidnapping. Israel’s actions in Gaza, she said, are why South Africa has accused Israel of genocide and that “The nickname ‘genocide Joe,’ sadly, has not been given to the president without cause.”
The conflict between Israel and Hamas was not a religious war, she said, falsely adding that “Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in relative peace for decades within Palestine before the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. “Muslims and Jews live in peace right now, in this country,” she said. “I myself am a Muslim with some Jewish ancestry, living at relative peace with myself.”
If I were still working at CAMERA, this dishonest, narcissistic chronology would be my cue to remind people of the centuries of violence and oppression directed at Jews (and Christians) in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and, more to the point, the Arab-perpetrated massacres of Jews incited during the British Mandate by Haj Amin Al Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem prior to Israel’s creation. Hebron, 1929; Jaffa, 1936; Tiberias, 1938. “Have you ever even heard the word ‘dhimmi’?” I would be forced to ask. “Do you understand the manner in which Islamists have tried to obtain their joy at the misery of the Jews? Did you not pay attention to what happened on October 7?”
Instead of making a scene, I groaned inwardly at the all-too-familiar narrative offered by Faaruuq and Anderson. It’s a tale I’ve encountered frequently at Christian “peace” conferences in the West Bank and the U.S. over the past 20 years. The story goes like this: If only Jews knew and accepted their place in the societal order that governed the Middle East prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the violence they’ve endured at the hands of Arabs and Muslims in the region would never have taken place, and, by extension, Muslims wouldn’t be attacking Christians who, in the minds of their neighbors, are associated with the West. In the worldview underpinning this narrative, the problem that needs fixing isn’t Islamist hostility toward Jews, but the Jewish insistence on being a free and sovereign people.
To put it bluntly, Faaruuq and Anderson were trafficking in the Muslim Middle East’s version of the “happy darkey” myth deployed by former slave owners in the American South and documented by Eunice G. Pollack and Stephen H. Norwood in The Middle East Quarterly. “The long-standing myth of a tranquil Southern plantation society, where loyal slaves lived in harmony with paternal masters, bears a striking resemblance to the enduring image of the happy Jewish dhimmi in the Islamic world,” they write.
In the American south, the story was that things were just fine until Lincoln freed the slaves. Once they were freed, southern whites needed to keep blacks in their place with periodic lynchings. In the Middle East, the story is that things were fine until the Jews got a state, and, once achieved, Muslims were obligated to do anything they could to destroy it.
It’s a shock to hear two black Muslims legitimately opposed to white supremacism endorsing its twin—Muslim supremacism—in a city that was an abolitionist stronghold back in the day. And to make it even more troubling, the narrative was being offered in Roxbury where Jews were driven out of their homes through a campaign of “blockbusting” in the 1970s. Folks who live in Boston know the story. Blue Hill Avenue used to be called “Jew Hill Avenue” because of all the Jews who lived there. Not anymore.
The Jewish exodus from Boston was driven in part by acts of black-on-Jew violence in the streets of Roxbury and Mattapan. One of the most notorious acts of violence took place in 1969 when Gerald Zelermyer, the rabbi of Temple Beth Hillel in Mattapan, was attacked in his home. The Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that Zelermyer was attacked by “two black youths who rang the doorbell of his home, handed him a note and hurled an acid bomb in his face before fleeing. The note began, ‘dearest rabbi,’ contained obscene language and ordered him to ‘get out of town.” That was pretty much what Hamas tried to tell Jews in Israel on October 7. To their credit, they ain’t moving. (Where would they go?)
Instead of an honest assessment of Hamas’s brutality, the ideology that motivated it, and the war it precipitated, the speakers at this gala implicitly offered a dishonest and nostalgic narrative of how good life would be for Jews in Muslim-majority settings if only they had accepted their inferior status under Islamic rule. The message was that by insisting on being sovereign, Zionist Jews had invited and justified all manner of violence against them since Israel’s establishment in 1948. Even being a stalwart peace activist, like Vivian Silver, is not enough to protect Jews in Israel from this violence.
After Faaruuq’s and Anderson’s speechifying, Faaruuq’s wife handed out service awards to attendees. The award ceremony was interrupted by evening prayer being held on the first floor of the ISBCC. As the crowd returned from prayers, I approached Siraj Wahhaj and gave him my business card. He took the card and told me that Imam Faaruuq had briefed him on who I was. His face and demeanor were much grimmer than they were when he offered to shake my hand when I first approached him. As I sat back down and exchanged pleasantries with my table mates, one of them asked me who I was writing for and I told them, “The Middle East Forum.” “Great,” he said.
Upon the crowd’s return, people were instructed to take their plates to the foyer to get served an evening meal. It took a while, but everyone got fed and, while I was in line for the food, I spoke briefly with Jerry Katz—who was clearly enjoying himself—and interacted briefly with a volunteer tabling for a Muslim charity that calls itself the New Life Assistance Foundation. According to its publicity materials, the charity builds wells, schools, feeds the hungry, and helps orphans in West Africa, the same type of stuff Peace Corps volunteers do overseas. (A while later, I learned that the charity, headquartered at the Mosque for Praising Allah and operating under Faaruuq’s management, lost its status as a tax-deductible charity in 2023 for failing to file annual reports with the IRS.)
On a table opposite the food line, volunteers sold mugs commemorating the 50th anniversary of the mosque being feted. I bought one as a memento of my attendance at the gala. Finally, I got my food, a modest portion of rice and spicy chicken, and started eating. As I ate, a volunteer came by and solicited donations. When he approached me, I regretfully told the man I could not make a donation. “But tell Imam Faaruuq I bought a mug,” I said. A man to my right who had replaced the young partygoers who had left earlier told me Allah would bless me.
Finally, the fundraising began with Wahhaj playing a central role. To encourage partygoers to dig deep for the cause, Wahhaj recounted an anecdote from the Muslim tradition about how a man assured his ascension to heaven by showing kindness to a dog. According to the story, the man was wandering through the desert, and after drinking water from the well, used his shoe to serve the dog water from the same well.
“When he came out of the well, he saw a dog licking his tongue on the earth,” Wahhaj said. “He said, ‘This dog is suffering from what I’m suffering. He went back in the well, took out his shoe, put water in the shoe and gave water to a dog. I want you to listen to what Allah did, because Allah sees everything.” As it turns out, Allah forgave the man his sins and did not send him to hell. “Allah was grateful for what he did [for that dog].” The message was that through their generosity that night, attendees would receive Allah’s gratitude as well just as the man in the desert.
Wahhaj then told his listeners about a recent visit to England where he participated in a fundraiser for the United Kingdom Islamic Foundation that raised approximately $232,000. According to Stand for Peace, a counter-extremist organization, “The Islamic Foundation is Britain’s leading publisher of books written by Abdul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, a violent Islamist movement responsible for acts of genocide during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence.” Stand for Peace states that in his book, Islamic Law and Constitution, “Mawdudi wrote that his ideal state would bear ‘a kind of resemblance to the fascist and communist states.’”
Wahhaj started to solicit donations from the crowd. “Imam [Faaruuq] told me there may be one, two, three, or four people in the crowd who can make a commitment of $10,000.” A few hands go up. As he scanned the crowd, he warned one attendee to keep his hand down. “When I’m asking for money, don’t raise your hand. I know you’re waving at somebody. Wrong time.”
To one attendee who raised his hand in response to the call for $10,000, Wahhaj said, “May Allah bless you.” After three or so people raised their hands, Wahhaj made one last plea before abandoning the $10,000 plateau, encouraging the audience to seek a reward with Allah. “Help him build this masjid and maintain this masjid. Anyone else? Good.”
A score or so of people agreed to donate $5,000 and as people raised their hands, Wahhaj offered a benediction. “May Allah bless you. The best of this life.” Finally, after descending down through the plateaus for $2,500, $1,000, and $100, Wahhaj exhorted people who could afford to give $20, even those who had already donated higher amounts, with a few dozen attendees raising their hands.
And so it ended, with Faaruuq taking back the microphone for one final talk. At this point I got up to leave, put on my long winter coat and scaly cap and took my man purse and walking stick down from the windowsill behind me. As I walked down the stairs to the first floor of the ISBCC, I heard Faaruuq encouraging attendees to take a look at that night’s program. In particular, he pointed out the advertisement which had a QR code that linked to Israel-related companies.
“We must boycott,” were the last words I heard him say as I stood on a landing listening to his speech.
A few minutes later, as I sat my car a few blocks from the ISBCC. I pulled the mug I had purchased for $15 out of my man purse an hour or so before for inspection.
On the bottom it read, “Made in China.”
“So much for the Uighurs,” I said sardonically before turning the key in the ignition to make my way home.