Mass. Muslims meet governor, seek broader voice

Associated Press | 5/25/2010, 7:34 p.m.

Massachusetts Muslim leaders, moving to transform their often marginalized community into a vibrant civic force, met face to face with Gov. Deval Patrick last weekend in what they billed as a landmark event.

Organizers said about 1,000 Muslims from groups around the state, including 15 mosques, attended a Saturday forum with the governor at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, in New England’s largest mosque.

Leaders talked to Patrick about what Muslims can contribute, described bias they face and asked the governor to make specific commitments to raise awareness about their faith.

It was the first time such a large group of Muslims have had an audience with the state’s highest-ranking elected official, said Yusufi Vali, a community organizer at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

“I think what happened is exactly what needs to happen,” he said. “What people will see is Muslims aren’t scary. ... They do want to have a stake in this country and make it better.”

Boston College religion professor Alan Wolfe said the meeting could have lasting importance for area Muslims.

“I think there’s still a substantial reluctance on the part of non-Muslim Americans to accept Islam as part of the American religious rainbow. This is an important step to overcoming that,” he said. “It’s a symbolic recognition that Muslims are a political community, and the only way you get accepted in America is through politics, really.”

Estimates of the state’s Muslim population vary widely, from as high as 130,000, to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that puts the number at no more than 33,000 out of a population of 6.6 million.

There’s a broad range of incomes, education levels and ethnicities within the group, from newer Somali immigrants, often in working-class jobs such as cab drivers, to established families from India and Pakistan employed as engineers and doctors. But their varied backgrounds mean local Muslim voices have sometimes been fragmented or muffled, event organizers said.

But Vali said Muslims share weariness and anger over being branded dangerous because of terrorism by Islamic extremists, and the accompanying extra attention by law enforcement and airport security. There’s also a conviction the political class prefers to keep them at arm’s length.

Vali noted President Barack Obama has not visited an American mosque since he took office —and did not during the campaign — though the White House cites several initiatives to reach out to Muslims, including briefings with more than 100 Arab American leaders during the last two years to update them on various domestic and international issues.

Area Muslims came to realize nothing would change until they united and tried to engage elected leaders, said Suzan El-Rayess, a graduate student working with event organizers.

“We felt like now is the time,” El-Rayess said. “We don’t have a seat at the table. We want to be active decision makers.”

Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Boston and the event’s lead organizer, said research shows that getting groups involved in the political process combats extremism within them. Ahmed Salaad, who works with the Boston-area Somali community, added engagement can also ease fears about Muslims.