For 27 years, members of the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg have lived in relative peace with their neighbors on a country road in rural Spotsylvania County.
At least until last week, when, during a community meeting about their plans to build a bigger mosque nearby, they found themselves defending their right to exist. The meeting was intended to address traffic concerns around the proposed religious center but instead was taken over by half a dozen angry protesters calling the Muslim residents terrorists.
The outbursts of hatred came amid rising calls across the country to pause or end resettlement of Muslim refugees in the United States. Fredericksburg and the counties surrounding it have become popular places for Middle Eastern refugees lured by low housing prices and available jobs. But the fast-growing area 50 miles south of Washington retains a conservative and rural character.
“You can see our problem,” Samer Shalaby said Friday before prayers, gesturing toward the rows of cars parked along a dirt road next to the center. A trustee of the Islamic Center and an engineer, Shalaby has lived in Fredericksburg for 30 years. When he arrived, he said, there were few traffic lights and even fewer Muslims.
“The area has changed a lot,” he said, “but unfortunately some people don’t change.”
Shalaby was giving a presentation to a packed room Tuesday night on the proposed center — at 8,000 square feet, it would be more than twice the size of the current mosque — when the protesters stood up.
“Nobody, nobody, nobody wants your evil cult in this county,” a bearded, tattooed man who identified himself as a former Marine said to scattered applause, according to a video posted online by the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. “I will do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen, because you are terrorists.”
The would-be mosque-builders were accused of planning a site for Syrian refugees or illegal immigrants. Attendee Elizabeth Wiley, 59, said that one of the protesters threatened her.
“He said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I am threatening all of you,’ ” she recalled.
A sheriff’s deputy stopped the meeting shortly after that encounter, according to the posted video. But Wiley and others said they wished the disrupters had been removed and detained.
Wiley, who converted to Islam five years ago after a group of Muslim acquaintances helped her through a neck injury, said she has been told to “go home” while wearing a hijab in public. She replied that she was born in Virginia.
Fawiza El-Ahwal, 38, said she had never felt uncomfortable in her 28 years in the area. But at the meeting, she said, the man sitting next to her said it was his country and she should leave.
“That really triggered something in me,” she said, “because my brother served [in the Marines]. When I hear, ‘Go home,’ I think of Fredericksburg.”
Along with Muslim immigrants such as El-Ahwal, whose family moved from Lebanon when she was young, hundreds of refugees have settled in the Fredericksburg area. At one point in 2010, churches said they couldn’t keep up with the newcomers. According to pastor Don Rooney of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, 108 refugees came to the area this year through Catholic Charities.
“Fredericksburg is a place that people can still kind of afford to live,” he said. But “the county has a tendency to be more rural, a lot less tolerant; there’s not a lot of diversity in spots.”
Rooney was at the meeting and “appalled,” he said, especially since the various religious communities in the area have strong relationships with each other.
“A lot of them identified as veterans; I guess there’s some real painful experiences there,” he said.
Polling and hate-crimes data suggest that bias and attacks against Muslims increase after terrorist attacks. Imam Sheikh Rashid Lamptey said in his sermon Friday that it was Muslims’ responsibility to explain that their religion does not support mass murder.
“People calling themselves Muslim are killing Muslims, and they are making our lives very difficult,” he said. “If we don’t do something, it will come back to bite us.”
He and leaders from the three other Islamic organizations in the area gathered for a meeting Friday to discuss their next steps.
“I’m excited about this whole thing because I think the outcome and the support that we’re having in this community is phenomenal,” said Munira Salim Abdalla, chief administrator for the Islamic Ummah of Fredericksburg, a newer mosque.
Nicholas Gilbert, a lieutenant at the volunteer fire and rescue station next door to the mosque, was among the well-wishers. He recalled members sometimes bringing food for the firefighters after meetings.
“They’ve always been nice to us,” he said. “I wish people were a little more open-minded.”
Since the meeting was reported in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, the Islamic Center has been flooded with letters and gestures of support.
For the next meeting, Abdalla said, “the support will be there, so those ignorant [people] and knuckleheads can shut their mouths.”
The community meeting is just the first step in the permitting process to build the new mosque.
“The proposed site has been a traffic issue for some time,” said Spotsylvania County Supervisor Timothy McLaughlin (I), whose Chancellor district includes the site. “I can’t speak to any other issues raised . . . but [I] believe through further community involvement we will move past this.”
Before prayers began Friday, a Jewish man in his 70s stopped at the mosque with a check for the new building.
“I wanted them to know that not all their neighbors are Nazis,” he said. “Coming from a religious minority, I’ve been subjected to collective guilt.”
The man declined to give his name. Some of his friends and neighbors in Fredericksburg, he said, would not agree with his decision to donate money.