Building a mosque in suburbia isn't easy. Just ask the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.
It has taken six years for the fast-growing Muslim congregation to have a place of worship that members could call their own. The 59,000-square-foot mosque, scheduled to open in phases beginning next month, is a rarity on the Northern Virginia landscape -- its arches, domed roof and three-story minaret rising above a predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood.
Moving into the community of half-million-dollar homes was a struggle. The congregation endured a six-year process that included contentious public hearings, phone threats, vandalism and a fire on the property.
The presence of the mosque, located on Sugarland Road on the border of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, is a testament to the deepening diversification of the Washington suburbs, communities that 10 or 15 years ago had relatively few Muslims living on their quiet cul-de-sacs. As recently as 1998, the Muslim society was drawing fewer than 200 people to rented locations in the Dulles area. Now it counts 1,400 -- mostly immigrants -- at its primary Friday afternoon prayer service.
The society's size and rapid growth initially alarmed neighbors in the Sugarland area when they learned it was building nearby. But over time, a bond slowly developed between the two communities, and it grew stronger after the mosque, still under construction, was attacked by vandals after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. Nearby churches and neighbors who had once complained about the unsightliness of the large building and the increased traffic it would bring rallied in support of the mosque's members.
The outreach extended in both directions. After the terrorist attacks, "we realized that we all have to work harder to get to know one another and be transparent to one another," said Rizwan Jaka, the group's vice president.
The group had been searching for a permanent building since 1991, when it had just a handful of families, said Hassan Ibrahim, a member of its board of trustees. In 1996, the organization bought 16 acres along Sugarland Road and applied for a special permit to build in a residential zone. Because the land is in both Fairfax and Loudoun, approval was needed from officials in both counties.
Nearby homeowners reacted with suspicion and distrust. Their concerns focused mostly on the mosque's impact on traffic and parking, but a few residents circulated fliers that referred to Muslims as "terrorists," several people recalled.
"They were not used to a mosque. It was very hard for them to understand," said a building campaign leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "A church they can understand -- everybody dresses up and goes on Sunday. But we go on Fridays; we don't sit in pews. . . . We had to spend a lot of time educating people."
To gain community acceptance, the group's leaders had to meet 53 conditions imposed by the two counties. For example, because of noise concerns the group was prohibited from holding an outdoor call to prayers; members also agreed not to paint the mosque white, which is traditional, because it was thought the building would stand out too much. Loudoun County planners would not allow a minaret higher than the surrounding tree line, and other officials required the congregation to install fences, berms and landscaping to obscure the building.
Even that wasn't enough for some homeowners, a few of whom began packing their belongings after the Muslim group got the go-ahead to build in 2000.
"I'm not really happy," said Sudha Ravella, whose home across from the mosque is for sale. "We feel that this is not a place for a mosque: The road is very small, and there's going to be bad traffic. And a mosque is not supposed to be in a residential area anyway."
As the first phase of construction was winding down last year, vandals struck, twice spray-painting curses, swastikas and racial slurs in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. They also tried to burn down the mosque's sign. The first anniversary of the terrorist strikes brought another wave of incidents and phone threats.
Not everyone shared those feelings, however. Some neighbors rallied 'round the mosque.
Michele Ann Hawes, who lives a block away, and her friends chased away a group that had set fire to the mosque's sign. Brynn Walker covered the racial slurs with a sheet and posted a notice warning whomever did it that the mosque was being protected by its community.
"I was irate. . . . It was just bigotry as far as I'm concerned," Walker said. "It struck a nerve, and I wanted to stand up and do what was right. I think Americans are like this. In a crunch, we stand up for each other."
Neighbors said they were relieved when police arrested two Loudoun County youths, ages 14 and 16, earlier this month for the spray-painting incidents in September of this year. The other attacks, which police are investigating as hate crimes, remain unsolved.
In an act of solidarity, nearby churches and synagogues donated money to the mosque's building fund.
"One of the things that folks in our congregation came to realize after 9/11 was the need for us to get to know our Muslim neighbors," said the Rev. Stephen Smith-Cobbs, who leads Trinity Presbyterian Church down the street. "It was kind of a wake-up call for us. We've been very involved in our communities and not really taking the time to do a lot to reach out to one another."
Indeed, many neighbors remain concerned about traffic and property values in the neighborhood but say they wish the mosque and its members no harm.
"We are holding our breath. We anticipate they will be parking up and down the street," said Kirsten Frostad. "It's a huge building, but that piece of property can't hold that many people."
But Frostad said she welcomes Muslims to the community. "It's more of a size issue than a 'what' issue," she said.
Ibrahim, the board member, said the long struggle to get community and county approval for the mosque was ultimately a positive experience because it taught members the meaning of being a good neighbor. The mosque has joined several interfaith organizations, and its leaders regularly travel to other houses of worship to explain their beliefs.
"In Islam, the neighbors have as many rights as your own relatives. To have good neighbors is part of the faith," Ibrahim said. "When you don't know them or reach out to them, that lack of knowledge can lead to suspicion."
For Mohammed Magid, the imam, having a mosque is worth whatever it took to build it.
"They say buying your own house is the American dream," he said. "Well, this mosque is the American dream for Muslims."