Muslims in the Tennessee city of Murfreesboro said Friday they hope the opening of their new mosque after more than two years of controversy will be a new beginning for relations with the community, particularly their opponents.
Islamic Center of Murfreesboro members include immigrants from Iraq, Egypt, Syria and other countries, as well as American converts. Many of them said that before the opposition to their new building they had always found Murfreesboro to be a welcoming community.
If it were not, the congregation would never have grown to the point where they needed to build a new mosque, they said.
"We are here 30 years and I never had a problem with the people here," said Safaa Fathy, a member of the mosque's board of directors. "It only started two years ago."
That's when the Islamic center received permission to construct a new mosque to replace their overcrowded space in an office park. Since then they have had to deal with public protests, vandalism, arson of a construction vehicle and a bomb threat. Opponents of the project held a protest rally and then sued the county to stop construction.
Their attorneys claimed in court that Islam was not a real religion deserving of freedoms protected under First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They also claimed that local Muslims were part of a plot to overthrow the U.S. constitution and replace it with Islamic law.
They were unable to prove those claims, which were thrown out by the judge, but construction was nearly halted anyway when that judge ruled in May there was not sufficient public notice for the meeting where mosque construction was approved.
Last month, a federal judge granted the mosque's request for an emergency order that would open the building in time for the holy month of Ramadan, which is still under way.
Matt Miller had just converted to Islam and begun worshipping at the mosque when the controversy erupted. He said all of his friends, whom he describes as "regular American bar-hopping citizens," support the new mosque and are happy for the congregation.
He does sometimes worry that opposition to the mosque could turn violent, but said a friend told him to think about it this way: "If the way you go is praying in the masjid (mosque) during Ramadan, what better way is there?"
Miller said he thinks the opposition will die down after the mosque holds an open house and people "see that there are no underground tunnels. We're not here to take over the world. We just don't want to worship in a shoebox anymore."
Fathy's daughter Amirah Fathy drove up from Atlanta on Friday to celebrate the mosque opening with her parents.
She said she never felt hostility because of her religion while growing up in Murfreesboro. When the controversy over the new building started it was "so strange," she said. "I think we just got too much attention and people got nervous. People fear what they don't understand."
She remembers the congregation meeting in a one-bedroom apartment when she was a child. "It was such a mess," she said.
Surveying the spacious, 12,000-square-foot (1,115-square-meter) building with its high ceilings, tile hallways and numerous windows, she said, "The feeling is just overwhelming, the feeling of joy, happiness."
About half of the building is taken up by the large, open worship space. Worshippers sit on the floor, where a decorative carpet pattern divides the space into rectangles, showing members where to sit and pray. Because they prostrate themselves during prayers, men are in the front of the room and women in the back.
Soon, there will be a nursery for small children, but on Friday, the little ones ran around their mothers, playing and sometimes shouting while older siblings tried to quiet them.
Some men were dressed in suits, while others wore button-down shirts and slacks or T-shirts and jeans. A few wore the traditional clothing of their countries, including long shirts that fall to the knees and small, brimless hats.
The women covered their hair with colorful scarfs and wore robes or long skirts. Some younger women pulled on skirts over their jeans as they walked in.
In the front of the room, the imam stood in front of a small alcove with an arched opening. On either side, windows looked out on construction vehicles, still at work landscaping the property.
During his sermon, Imam Ossama Bahloul told the congregation that sometimes people worried about the opposition they have faced will ask him "Why us?"
In his answer, he turned the idea that mosque members are victims on its ear.
"Maybe it's because God knows we are strong enough to deal with this," he told them. "So be proud."