March 31st, 2011
01:00 AM ET
Editor’s Note: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a mosque in the heart of the Bible belt. Watch “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door,” airing at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET April 2 on CNN.
By John Sepulvado, CNN
Lexington, Kentucky (CNN) – The parking lot in suburban Lexington begins filling up around 1 p.m. Men park their compact cars and file in through one side of a ranch-house-style building. Women leave their large SUVs and head through another door.
As they remove their shoes, the men talk about the conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East – especially in Libya. Several young boys crawl on the red carpet, while the women, wearing brightly colored headscarves, read quietly to their daughters in the back of the room.
One at a time, the adults take to their knees and pray to themselves. The girls continue reading while the boys quietly whisper and laugh.
Then a tall man wearing a white cap and rimmed glasses stands at the front of the room. As Ihsan Bagby begins to talk, even the restless children fall quiet at the Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque.
Bagby, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the mosque’s rotating imans, speaks with a call-and-response cadence often heard in Southern Baptist churches.
He begins with a message tailored for the Libyan congregants, many of whom are political refugees opposed to Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
"We're not going to falter because the task is hard, just because it looks difficult. ... No, no! Don't focus on that!" Bagby says. "We think of all the people who are struggling simply for the right to participate, and it's something that we as Muslims should believe in, and we ask Allah to pour out to them ... success in this world."
His voice rises and falls as he preaches the importance of sabr, an Islamic principle that combines patience and steadfastness.
Click on the play button to hear Bagby preach and learn more about the Muslim community's prayers for peace in Libya:
“Here in this country, the King hearing, and the loud voices that are speaking up in state assemblies, in politicians’ speeches, in talk radio, in TV ... we hear all types of terrible things. It's going to be a challenge for us, as a Muslim community."
Bagby looks down for a moment, then raises his head and his voice.
"But the key is simple: Allah is with those who have sabr, who don't give up."
While Muslims in Tennessee, New York, Florida and Michigan have faced protests over of their religion, the congregants – part of a small, thriving, tight-knit Libyan community in Lexington – say they feel embraced by the local community and comfortable practicing their religion.
"I love Lexington," says 30-year resident Ibrahim Bakoush. "I would tell anyone to come to Lexington, it's a great place. Come on over. I've been telling people to come here for 25 years ... mainly because I was alone at first," he says, smiling. "But seriously, I have always felt welcome here."
Even Bagby, a University of Kentucky scholar once labeled a "dangerous professor" by conservative author David Horowitiz, recently said in a newspaper interview that Muslims in Kentucky have been spared from popular backlash seen in other states.
"The community has not been under any real threat here and has not experienced any violence," Bagby told the Lexington-Herald Leader. "Overall, I think the experience of Muslims in Kentucky has been very good."
Home for refugees
In the early 1980s, Wafa Nashnoush's family was on the run. Married to a Libyan opposition leader, Nashnoush says her family was being hunted by Moammar Gadhafi. The family moved from Egypt to Europe to the U.S., then back to Europe during a 3-year span.
"Europe at the time was full of pro-Gadhafi mafia and gangs, and he was hunting opposition groups," says Nashnoush. "And the Middle East – one day you are safe, then the next you are threatened."
By 1986, she had given birth to three sons in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Nashoush says the family's constant migration was exciting, as she met many people and saw different cities.
"But once our kids were approaching school age, we needed to seriously consider a home for our children," she says. "Lexington was the right size, away from any Libyan gatherings where Gadhafi’s men might be hiding."
The Lexington residents, meanwhile, have been extremely supportive, Nashnoush says.
"Even after 9/11, while there was a backlash across the country, in Lexington, people would come and ask us if we were OK, if we felt safe, if we needed a ride home from work," Nashnoush adds. "Lexington is a warm and inviting community."
Word about Lexington has spread. Nashnoush estimates there were a few dozen Muslim families here in the mid-1980s. Today, various estimates put the number of Muslims in Lexington at about 2,700.
Many in the community, including Nashnoush and Bakoush, say the University of Kentucky – along with a diverse and tolerant population accepting of different religious practices – attracts Muslims to the community.
Some Lexington Muslims have been contemplating expanding the local mosque and possibly building an Islamic center similar to those that have drawn protests in other cities. Nashnoush says she believes the community would accept an expansion of the Masjid Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque.
"If we had the resources to build a bigger mosque or build an Islamic center, I doubt the non-Muslim residents would oppose that," Nashnoush says.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.