Imam Talal Eid: The World is His MosqueReleased on September 25, 2007
By LANE LAMBERT
The Patriot Ledger
QUINCY - There he was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at a lavish reception marking the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence. Britain’s Prince Andrew was seated to his right, Australia's ambassador to his left, and Brunei's foreign minister across the table.
"And they were asking me about Muslims in America," said Imam Talal Eid, recalling the event a month later.
The 56-year-old Lebanon native and Quincy resident is fielding such questions more often than ever these days, in farther-flung places. Four months after he became the first Muslim cleric appointed to the high-profile U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he is traveling the globe acting as something of a U.S. ambassador to the Islamic world.
Before he went to Malaysia, he was in commission delegations to Saudi Arabia and the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, two countries where religious minorities of all denominations are harassed and suppressed. His next trip comes in October, when a commission group will visit Vietnam to investigate similar issues there.
His efforts have drawn praise from commission Chairman Michael Cromartie.
"Imam Eid brings a vast store of knowledge on issues related to Islam," Cromartie said. "He gives us wonderful credibility. He can press the points better than we can."
Two years ago, the imam’s prospects didn’t seem so promising. He left the Islamic Center of New England in July 2005 amid a bitter dispute over his role there after 23 years as spiritual director. Despite growing national recognition and the loyalty of many Muslims south of Boston, he was a man without a mosque.
As it turned out, he didn’t need one. He has remade himself into a freelance imam - a pastoral counselor, hospital and university chaplain and more - marrying Muslim couples, conducting funerals and advising the devout.
A chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brandeis University, he has a Web site, iiboston.net, for his one-man Islamic Institute of Boston. Invitations to White House Ramadan dinners in 2005 and 2006 gave him national prominence. He regularly gets job offers from other mosques, but he says he’s not interested.
"My work never changed," he said. "I’m doing the same thing, except with less stress. ... I’m happy in my situation here. No headaches."
As for his departure from the Islamic Center, "I don’t feel that I lost something," he said. "I gained."
"An American Muslim"
At the time, he wasn’t so willing to leave - at least not as it happened.
Imam Eid had off-and-on skirmishes with the Islamic Center’s board of directors for more than a decade, often over administrative issues. Tensions sharpened in 1998, when the board hired a second imam for the Sharon mosque without first consulting Imam Eid.
In January 2005, board officers divided duties at the Quincy and Sharon mosques between Imam Eid and Imam Muhammad Masood, in effect demoting Imam Eid as overall spiritual director.
"They treated me like a janitor," he said then.
He resigned in protest, then tried to take the resignation back, saying board officers had pressured him into it. The board majority refused to reconsider, blocking his entrance to the Quincy mosque in July of that year.
But Imam Eid had extensive experience and connections to fall back on. Trained in Islamic law at prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he had served mosques in Lebanon before he and his wife, Hend, immigrated to America in 1982.
As he continued performing his traditional duties, he became increasingly involved in Boston-area interfaith programs. He has said that Lebanon’s civil war between Sunni, Shia and Christian factions in the 1970s shaped his interest and views.
Before his departure, by some accounts, conservatives at the Islamic Center complained that he had gotten too active with interfaith programs and was spending too much time outside the Quincy-Sharon community - a charge Imam Eid tersely disputes.
"I wasn’t neglecting the community," he said. "It’s not true."
Masood, a Pakistan native, currently faces criminal charges he lied to immigration officials. He and his family still live on the grounds of the Sharon mosque but he is no longer the recognized spiritual leader there.
Rather than withdraw, as many U.S. Muslims have done since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Imam Eid said more of his fellow believers need to fully embrace America’s diversity, "to say I am an American Muslim and proud to be" - as he has been since becoming a U.S. citizen in 1985.
University of North Carolina religious studies professor Omid Safi says Imam Eid is forging a path that other Muslims will have to follow if they wish to be fully a part of this country.
"The types of interfaith journeys this imam is engaged in are a crucial part of coming to terms with the challenge and opportunity" of being Muslim in America, said Safi, the author of "Progressive Muslims."
In his travels, Imam Eid has pushed religious tolerance and diversity.
In Turkmenistan in August, he spoke with the new president, the chief Muslim mufti and other government ministers in an effort to persuade them to remove nonreligious sayings from the walls of a huge new mosque and replace them with proper Quran quotations. He also met with evangelical Christians at the U.S. embassy, then urged Turkmenistan ministers to reach out to them, as the Prophet Muhammad by tradition did to Jews and Christians in 7th-century Arabia.
By the time the U.S. delegation departed, the government there had pledged to study the mosque issue and establish the country’s first human-rights commission.
"The job is tough," Imam Eid said. "Then things happen, and you feel that you’re accomplishing something. You say: 'Now there is hope.'"