When Salma Kazmi got to her job at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) on the morning of September 11, 2001, she found a telephone message from her boss. “Something terrible has happened,” it said. “Please call me immediately.” After she found out about the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Kazmi made her way over to a mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge. The place was packed with members of the media and the community, some confused, some concerned, all looking for answers. Initially she was overwhelmed. Then she sprang into action.
“We did a ton of outreach,” she remembers. “We held open houses at the mosque, press conferences, responded to speaking requests. The director of programs at the synagogue nearby came to an open house and said there was an opportunity for us to begin an important conversation. So he and I initiated a Jewish-Muslim dialogue between my mosque and his synagogue that eventually became the Center for Jewish-Muslim Relations, which we co-led.”
Whether at a mosque, an interfaith center she co-founded, or at Boston’s first Islamic seminary, Salma Kazmi, MTS ’09, answers the call to religiously literate dialogue about her tradition and its role in the community. For this work, Kazmi will be recognized by her fellow HDS alumni on May 2 as a 2019 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.
"My time at HDS gave me the language to convey religious ideas and experiences beyond the familiar boundaries of the Muslim community," she says. "It also helped me think about how religious principles can be brought into more meaningful and engaged conversation with contemporary issues. To be recognized by the School and its alumni in this way is an unexpected blessing, the fruit of working with good people towards a meaningful goal. I feel truly honored.”
“I felt like had to prove my humanity”
The years after 9-11 may have been the most challenging time in history to build a new mosque in a major U.S. city, but that’s precisely the project Kazmi was engaged in as associate director of the ISBCC. Construction began shortly after the attacks and was immediately the subject of negative publicity and lawsuits. Part of Kazmi’s job was to respond.
“The media coverage was the most difficult thing to navigate,” she says. “There were a lot of allegations. Sometimes they referred to people as leaders of the mosque who I’d never met before. Then at some point there were five different lawsuits, so there was a lot of responding to requests from lawyers as well as from the media.”
At first, Kazmi “reveled” in the work. She loved talking about her faith and found many people eager to learn about Islam. After a time, however, the work became exhausting.
“You know, most people wanted a friendly face and didn’t care that much about my religion, and that’s fine,” she says. “But sometimes I felt like I had to prove my humanity. I had to smile and prove that I wasn’t a terrorist. That was really hard.”
The project ran into cost overruns and procedural challenges. Kazmi helped coordinate with the City of Boston, with contractors, and with the mosque’s architects—all while trying to counter rising Islamophobia. Miraculously, the ISBCC opened the doors to the new house of worship in 2008. By that time, though, Kazmi had enrolled at HDS.
“The ISBCC hired me as a project manager, but a lot of what I ended up doing was the communication and outreach,” she says. “I thought Harvard could help me do that more effectively.”
Beauty in Diversity—and Power Too
After graduating from HDS, Kazmi took on another landmark project: the establishment of the Boston Islamic Seminary (BIS). Launched in 2016, the BIS’s mission is “to train our students to become deeply conversant with the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna, the scholarly tradition of Islam as it has been elaborated over time, the history and socio-cultural context that shapes Islam in America, and the tools required to serve communities in a variety of roles.” Kazmi, who served as executive director, explains that the preparation of Muslim religious leaders differs from that of Christian ministers—a distinction embedded in the BIS’s curriculum and programming.
“There’s no ordination in Islam,” Kazmi explains. “So, we’re not specifically calling it a degree for imams. We’re really trying to bring together some of the core skills—pastoral care, leadership, public speaking—and focus on what it means to be Muslim in the modern world.”
Kazmi was recognized in 2017 for her work at the BIS with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Young Leadership Award of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries (CMM). The CMM cited “Kazmi’s leadership of the Islamic Seminary and its commitment to the authentic, balanced, spiritual and intellectual heritage of Islam, deeply rooted in the compassionate teachings and wisdom of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad.”
With the seminary up and running, Kazmi has returned to work in the private sector, where she spent some years before her time at HDS, the ISBCC, and the BIS. As she considers her next move, she says she’s both concerned and hopeful about interfaith relations in American society at this point in history.
“There is a verse in the Qur’an that says, basically, ‘God found you separated as enemies, and he brought your hearts together,’” she says. “To hold a community together you need a basic ethic of honesty, trustworthiness, and kindness. I worry that those values are eroding in today’s political climate. On the other hand, there is such diversity in our country right now and that gives me hope. Change is messy. It’s threatening to some people. But there is beauty in it. And power too.”