BOSTON — Friday night* marks the official opening of a new Muslim cultural center in Boston's most prominent shopping district — Newbury Street. It's the new Boston home of a group of progressive Muslim activists, the American Islamic Congress. These Muslims are making a statement — that they are part of mainstream American society.
The new center is 3,300 square feet of airy, glass walled, sunlit, seventh-floor space overlooking Newbury Street in Boston‘s Back Bay. Lauren Murphy is the program manager for the civil rights group that has created the center, the AIC.
"We wanted to be on Newbury Street for the cache of it, and the hipness of it, to kind of mainstream of what it means to be (an) American Muslim," Murphy said.
The AIC grew out of the ashes of terrorism committed in the name of Islam.
"Islam is the religion of peace. Well, it is not in the minds of outsiders, and our job is to explain and own up to the realities of Islamic terrorism around the world and here domestically."Nasser Weddady, civil rights director, American Islamic Congress
"We were founded as a reaction to 9/11," said Nasser Weddady, civil rights outreach director of the AIC. A native of Mauritania, he grew up in Syria and Libya. He was an anti-slavery activist who came to the U.S. seeking asylum in 2000, a year before 9/11.
Weddady said that after the attacks, because of his Middle East roots and appearance, he was handcuffed, detained, and held for six hours*.
"Something had to be done to get a new Muslim voice to emerge that would be equally passionate about advocating for civil rights, commitment to individual liberties," he said.
So Weddady is now working with a diverse group of young Muslim activists at the AIC to challenge negative images of Muslims.
"We’re not going to sit silent, and you know, giving half excuses or using tired cliches. Islam is the religion of peace. Well, it is not in the minds of outsiders, and our job is to explain and own up to the realities of Islamic terrorism around the world and here domestically," Weddady said.
"You want to make a statement, because the refrain since 9/11 always has been, 'Where are these nice Muslims, where are these moderate Muslims,' as much as I dislike that term, but I'm going to use it. Well, here we are."
The AIC hopes to showcase Muslim diversity now that they have moved from small offices on Huntington Avenue to the large new cultural center on Newbury Street, where they are welcoming everyone — Muslims and non-Muslims — to a variety of activities.
"We are hoping to create this to be a hub, an incubator for talent, for arts, for civic leadership, for entrepreneurship all in one," Weddady said.
In a large performance space at the center, noted Turkish musician and composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol is testing the acoustics for an upcoming performance. The new space is bustling with activity as staff members gear up for the official opening.
The cultural center is opening without the protest that accompanied plans for an Islamic center near ground zero in New York.
"I would be disappointed if there was opposition," said Rob Leikind of the Boston office of the American Jewish Committee, which has worked collaboratively with the AIC.
"They've been very courageous, they have stepped out, they have been active in advancing human rights, they have been active in speaking out against hate crimes, they've active in making connections to other communities," Leikind said.
"What we’re demystifying here is the concept of what being Muslim is about," Weddady said.
Friday night, when Weddady and the AIC open the Muslim cultural center, they want to make the point that being Muslim and being American are not a contradiction.
This program aired on December 2, 2011.