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BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO
Wed May 15, 2013
Roxbury Imam Reflects On Muslim Life in Boston
It’s been a month since explosions at the Boston Marathon set off a chain of unforeseen events. People were hurt and killed; a manhunt and citywide shutdown ensued. After the alleged perpetrators were cornered, the slow unraveling of events leading up to the marathon ensued. Questions were raised, explanations sought.
Details of the alleged bombers’ lives emerged, including the fact that one of them, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had recently rededicated himself to his Muslim faith, but with a particular interest in a hostile, radical ideology.
For Boston’s Muslim community, this last detail has been particularly troubling. While the faith invites followers into its community to learn the Koran and live a devoted, peaceful life, this same inclusiveness may also attract undesirable elements.
After the Boston bombings Imam William Suhaib Webb grieved with the rest of the city. Webb is Imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury. The past month has been particularly trying for his community, and for Boston Muslims in general.
“The worst day of my life was on Fox News,” Webb said. “There was a guy who said I was an Al-Qaeda operative, a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. My mother in Oklahoma was watching … and so she calls me. You never want your mother to see that about you.”
As leader of Roxbury’s Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), it was up to Webb to put his community at ease while distancing their religious practice from any backward, fringe elements. The task would be daunting in the best of times.
Imam Webb has led Roxbury’s ISBCC for only 16 months. His path to the post is an unlikely one. Webb grew up near Oklahoma City and attended Sunday Christian service with his family.
“The mega-church model, Joel Osteen style,” he said.
By the time he got to college, Webb was a hip-hop DJ living the true college lifestyle.
“I smoked a little weed,” he said. “I listened to the Eagles and Boston, when Brad Delp was still alive.”
A fellow student with similar recreational habits clued him into Islam, and Webb devoured the text, studying it incessantly.
“I found a copy of the Koran, read it and was surprised,” he said. “I thought it would be, you know, ‘Kill Americans and tie women up to trees.’ The Koran wasn’t as inhumane as my [own] assumptions were before reading it. I felt like I had to qualify myself.”
After memorizing the Koran, Webb traveled overseas to learn Arabic and study Islam over seven years. When he came back to the U.S., he was ready to lead and teach within the Muslim faith. Webb is quick to point out that while Islam is thousands of years old, the U.S. movement is relatively new. He called it “pre-pubescent.”
“People are used to their own church as a model, their own synagogue. The mosques really started popping up in the late 1960s and ’70,” he said. While Christianity has had a foothold in American religious life for hundreds of years, “American Muslims are still a fresh immigrant community.”
At the ISBCC, Webb’s leadership has brought in 200 new community members. He attributes this to a simple, straightforward message.
“We honor the fundamental pillars of Islam — belief in God, belief in prophets, prayer, fasting, Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca. We articulate that in a way that is very American, culturally.”
Following the Boston Marathon tragedy, the community, dedication and discipline offered by ISBCC could be the antidote to ugly, wrongheaded acts perpetrated by isolated individuals.
“The grace of God touches people through good, healthy institutions, so that’s what my focus is on,” Webb said.
He’ll continue to teach in his community, and partner with leaders of other faiths. Webb said he’s encouraged by the way Boston has banded together in the wake of tragedy.
“Boston really stole peoples’ hearts,” he said. “I got an email from a woman in Mission Hill. She says to me, ‘I just think today you need a virtual hug. Our non-Muslim neighbors have been incredible.”
>> To hear the entire conversation with Imam Webb, click here.