Live

Watch CBSN Live

"Politics of hope" needed to defeat extremism, Muslim leader says

As director of Boston's largest mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), Yusufi Vali has grown accustomed to questions concerning the nature of Islam and its relationship with ISIS, especially over the past couple of months.

On a recent Friday, as Vali prepared to attend Jumuah Khutbah, the weekly Friday sermon followed by a prayer service, he scrolled through dozens of emails in his windowless office in the mosque. Many were messages of solidarity from ISBCC supporters - Muslims and non-Muslims alike - who, like Vali, lamented how Islam was becoming increasingly conflated with extremist beliefs.

screen-shot-2015-12-15-at-8-10-29-pm.png
ISBCC Senior Imam Shaykh Yasir Fahmy at Friday prayer service. Ines Novacic / CBS News

"I get asked questions about ISIL a lot, [but] I am so disconnected from the political realities thousands of miles away," said Vali. "Beyond being very clear that these people are lunatics and thugs, it's hard for me to give you insight into groups like ISIL."

Recent high-profile terrorist attacks have demonstrated the scope of the self-proclaimed Islamic State's ability to inspire terror from afar. Tashfeen Malik posted her oath of allegiance to ISIS on Facebook before she and her husband Syed Farook opened fire in a conference room in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, on Nov. 13, a series of attacks by ISIS militants left 130 dead and 352 wounded across Paris, France and its suburbs.

Although Muslim communities all over the world joined governments in condemning these attacks, the tragedies have caused an apparent spike of Islamophobia in America.

screen-shot-2015-12-15-at-8-10-45-pm.png
Mosque director Yusufi Vali says he worries about America's "politics of hate." Ines Novacic / CBS News

"To have to continually condemn people who have no connection to you is difficult. Having said that, I appreciate Americans want to feel safe," said Vali, whose family moved from India to Kansas City, Missouri when he was a child. Asked about his reaction to ISIS specifically invoking the Islamic faith to justify their actions, the young Princeton-graduate said that "sick people will invoke anything - anything easy for them to invoke, to inspire people to do whatever it is they want."

He insisted that mosques need to be "open" places where strong community foundations are laid. ISBCC is one of America's leading mosques, and Vali wants it to be a "model mosque" for communities nationwide: "Anyone can come here. ... If people have any questions whether Islam and America are incompatible, my response is to just invite them to our mosque," said Vali. "What public officials, what neighbors, what public officials find is a lot of themselves in us."

Vali described his mission as teaching how to live Islam in America: "The fundamentals of Islam have been the same, but Islam always evolves with its context, and we are committed to how it ought to look in America."

The Council on American Islamic Relations last week said that they received more reports of crimes against Muslims and vandalism of mosques across America during the past couple of weeks than any other such period of time since 9/11.

screen-shot-2015-12-15-at-8-10-09-pm.png
The ISBCC in Roxbury is Boston's largest mosque. Ines Novacic / CBS News

Meanwhile, U.S. law enforcement agencies nationwide consider the threat from homegrown, right-wing extremists to be greater than the threat from Muslim extremists, according to a 2015 study from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security released earlier this year. Right-wing extremists are loosely defined by the FBI as those groups adhering to "the principles of racial supremacy and embrace antigovernment, antiregulatory beliefs."

"We work closely with all communities of faith to ensure our society remains free from violent extremism and to prevent retribution against members of a religion due to the unlawful actions of a few," an FBI spokesperson told CBS News.

For Vali and his congregation, inflammatory political rhetoric, and not the spread of ISIS, is the chief cause of concern when it comes to anti-Muslim sentiment:

"I'm concerned about Islamophobia but I'm a lot more concerned about this politics of fear," said Vali.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has been widely condemned for seeking a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. Trump defended his proposal and noted that any ban would be temporary and would not apply to United States citizens.

screen-shot-2015-12-15-at-8-11-50-pm.png
Scorzoni is a Muslim convert who often chooses not to wear hijab and describes herself as a "liberal Muslim." Ines Novacic / CBS News

"My friends and I were joking about what if Trump put people in internment camps, and I had to remind them: 'Guys, if that happened, I would have to go,'" said Leanne Scorzoni, a Boston native who recently converted to Islam. She attended Friday prayers that day, like every week, without a hijab and dressed in jeans and a shirt. She joked that she was the only Muslim in a large family of Irish-American Catholics.

"Even thought they know what I believe and what I practice and where I pray - there's still that tiny thing of 'Oh she's not from over there, so it's not the same.' But it is - it concerns us all."

Over the past two years since Vali has taken over, the mosque has held regular tours for students and community members, and regularly invited guests to services. It's active in the inter-faith community of Boston and beyond.

screen-shot-2015-12-15-at-8-11-37-pm.png
Pastor Don Larsen says that his faith community has a lot in common with the ISBCC congregation. Ines Novacic / CBS News

"Many voices in our country wish to divide us, I come simply to say I have more in common with this community of faith than I have differences," said the Rev. Don Larsen, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Arlington, who attended the Friday ISBCC service with several other Christian ministers.

Earlier this year, Vali decided to opt out of a President Obama's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative, a pilot program implemented in three cities so far - Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Boston - and dedicated to allocating resources to combat extremism as a whole. The reason? Vali felt the program singled out Muslims.

"President Obama primarily invited Muslim leaders ... and for most Muslims this felt stigmatizing because it reinforced the stereotype of Muslims being violent," said Vali.

screen-shot-2015-12-15-at-8-12-19-pm.png
ISBCC community members at a recent Friday prayer service. Ines Novacic / CBS News

He explained how he declined to participate beyond initial CVE meetings across Boston because he felt that the program failed at looking at the epidemic of violence as a whole in America. He said that CVE's emphasis on stronger ties to law enforcement could foster an unhealthy culture of surveillance and mistrust among the congregations and communities like ISBCC.

"We will not be able to solve terror attacks, whether done in the name of ISIL, white supremacists, across the board -- unless we ask ourselves: 'What's going on here in life in America that's causing people to do those things?'" said Vali.

"We have to work together to get to a politics of hope."