Up the road, Culpeper County denied a permit in April to the Islamic Center of Culpeper, which wants to build a new mosque, and the Department of Justice is now taking a look at that action.
Here in Charlottesville, members of the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, which cut the ribbon on its own facility in 2012, say the community response has been positive. Still, it’s not easy being a Muslim in America when presidential candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants.
“In a pluralistic society such as this, that is very hurtful,” says Karim Ginena, a spokesperson for the mosque who’s studying at the Darden Graduate School of Business. “We’re in the land of Thomas Jefferson and religious freedom. That is the spirit of this place.”
And that’s why the mosque is holding an open house September 24 to allow the community to learn more about the facility, its congregation and about Islam.
Ginena shows a reporter around the three-story building, which has a kitchen and dining area on the first floor for community events and daycare on the third. It’s a Friday, Islam’s holy day, shortly before prayers begin. The Mussalah—prayer area—is a large empty room furnished with a carpet that has lines on it that direct the faithful to face northeast and the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site in Mecca.
As worshipers file in and greet Ginena with “Assalamu alaykum”—“Peace be upon you”—he points out people from different parts of the world, such as southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and says 40 ethnicities are represented in the mosque.
“The congregation is very UVA affiliated,” says Ginena. Muslims are one of the most highly educated populations in American society, he adds, and he introduces a group of five UVA grad students that includes two brothers, 15 and 16 years old, who are first-year med students. And there’s Mouadh Benamar, a grad student who has just co-authored a groundbreaking paper on cancer research.
Women sit in the back of the Mussalah because the prayers are done in a prostrate position. “It allows for the privacy of individuals,” says Ginena. The women all wear the hijab and even a bare-headed latecomer quickly covers her hair.
Around 130 men are present and they far outnumber the 30 women on this particular Friday. There are 2,000 members throughout the central Virginia area who call themselves Muslims, says Khan Hassan, the congregation’s treasurer.
And compared with other parts of America, they’ve encountered very little hate. More than a year ago, a student in line at Bodo’s was the target of a racist remark because of her headscarf. And two years ago the mosque received a letter written on the pages of the Koran that said, “We’re coming after you,” says Hassan. “We reported it to police and they were phenomenal.”
“There are sick-minded individuals in every religion,” says Ginena. “Unfortunately they are given the lion’s share of media coverage that puts Muslims in a negative light. It means we have to engage more. I think there’s a lot of ignorance about Islam.”
Says Ginena, “We also condemn acts of terrorism.”
The open house is to connect with the community and to let “people know more about our beliefs,” he says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about Muslims and a lot that is incorrect in the media. We want to let everyone know we’re a functioning and contributing part of the community.”
The Islamic Society of Central Virginia holds its open house Saturday, September 24,
from noon to 5pm, at 708 Pine St. Visitors are encouraged to register for a time slot at tinyurl.com/cvillemosque.