By JAY REEVES, MICHAEL BIESECKER and KATHLEEN FOODY
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Mohsin Ali, a member of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, has Christian friends and sometimes speaks at area churches about his Islamic faith. His experience isn’t that odd in a city that prides itself on strong ties between people of different faiths.
Ali, 42, can now only hope those delicate relationships aren’t torn by the fact that a fellow Muslim, a young man who attended his mosque, shot and killed four Marines and a sailor.
Ali, a child psychiatrist, grieves with others over the deaths of service members he calls heroes. But he’s also hearing from Muslim families who fear the community’s perception of them has changed.
That would be something this city hasn’t faced much before. As other communities in the region have dissolved in turmoil over the building of mosques and other matters, peaceful coexistence has largely prevailed here.
“We, our kids, feel 100 percent American and Chattanoogan,” said the Pakistani-born Ali. “Now they are wondering if that is how people still look at them.”
Valencia Brewer, the wife of a Baptist minister, knows how she’ll try to see Muslims as the days after the horrific shooting turn to weeks.
“I think the way you have to look at it is this was an individual person. You can’t point at all Muslims because of this,” she said.
Ali and Brewer were among more than 1,000 people who attended a memorial service Friday night at a Baptist church for the victims. Ali, one of the speakers, railed against alleged shooter Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez as a “murderer” who committed a “cowardly and cruel” act.
“He shot our Marines and our police officers, shattered the peace of our city, frightened our children,” Ali said. “He destroyed the lives of his whole family. He did his best to spread hatred and division. Disgraceful. And we will not let that endure.”
Ali said immigrants such as himself owe a debt of gratitude to America and the armed forces protect it, because they often know firsthand what it means to live in countries without personal freedoms or the rule of law. Near the end of the service, at Ali’s urging, dozens of Muslims received a standing ovation as they stood in support of their city and in allegiance to their nation.
It was a remarkable show of togetherness in a region where relations have sometimes been tense since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
About 100 miles to the northwest, plans to construct an Islamic center drew stiff community opposition for years in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where the mosque finally opened in 2012. Opponents then filed suit to block plans for an adjoining cemetery, but a judge tossed the case last year.
Similarly, to the south in Alabama, neighbors opposed plans to build or expand mosques in suburban Birmingham and Mobile in recent years.
That sort of thing hasn’t happened in Chattanooga. Instead, many non-Muslim neighbors attended an open house for the $2 million, domed Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga when it opened on Gunbarrel Road in 2012.
Raising the money and building the mosque, school and community center took about five years. People in Chattanooga never questioned it, said Bassam Issa, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga.
“We just feel very lucky to be in a city like this,” he said. “I wouldn’t know why a city chooses to be tolerant and peaceful versus a city that may have some trouble with such a project.”
Still, the events of the last few days have left some on edge, particularly the young. The end of Ramadan is usually a time for celebration, but events at the Islamic Center were canceled after the shootings. A sign on the door Friday encouraged visitors to go to the memorial service instead.
Khadija Aslam, 15, didn’t wear her head covering in the car while riding to prayer services after the shootings for fear of attracting attention, and 15-year-old Zoha Ahmad said her family is worried about the possibility of vandalism at their home.
“A lot of people know we live there and that we’re Muslims,” she said.
Ali said he plans to offer group counseling for concerned members of the Islamic community at his home, and that might help ease concerns. But, he isn’t sure.
“We’ll see,” said Ali.