Arriving at Princeton as a freshman, Yusufi Vali ’05 wanted to be an investment banker. But a week into his first semester, terrorists launched the Sept. 11 attacks, and Vali, a Muslim who was not observant, felt that he needed to understand Islam better. He decided to read the Quran, and to do that he began studying Arabic. After graduation, he was a Fulbright scholar in Syria, where he studied interfaith dialogue. Then he went to the University of London on a Marshall Scholarship to earn a master’s degree in Islamic studies.
A decade later, Vali is executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in New England. The center serves 1,400 congregants representing 64 nationalities. Vali embraces a vision of American mosques not just as places of prayer, but as engines of community engagement. The center has an active youth program, a food pantry, and a program to welcome converts. Vali learned community organizing on the streets of Minneapolis when he worked on President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
One of Vali’s biggest challenges has been countering distrust after attacks such as the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, committed by two Muslim extremists. It can be frustrating, Vali says, that “anytime something crazy happens, we get lumped in, and that distracts us from doing good work.” He responds with openness, inviting news reporters into the center and “taking the microphone and sharing who we are,” he says.
Responding to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Vali says he is worried not only for the Muslim-American community, but for American democracy at large. And while he says the Boston community has been very supportive, he has been fielding frequent requests from schools asking for help with strategies to stop the bullying of Muslim children.