Curious Nashville: Meet The Leader Of Tennessee’s Biggest Mosque | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: Meet The Leader Of Tennessee’s Biggest Mosque

Oct 5, 2017

Thousands of Muslims live in Middle Tennessee. The vast majority are Sunnis, but they come from all over the world — Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the United States.

A Curious Nashville listener wanted to know more about them:

Our Muslim neighbors in Nashville: Are then Sunni? Shia? Do they get along or do they squabble? Do they go to separate mosques? 

It's hard to generalize this entire community. Kurdish and Somali refugees form two of the largest groups, but a visit to one of Middle Tennessee's half dozen mosques will bring you in contact with the American-born children of immigrants, African-Americans and Anglo-Americans who've converted to Islam, and countless others.

Holidays like Eid al-Adha, one of the two most important on the Muslim calendar, demonstrate this diversity. Young men in basketball jerseys and baseball caps stream out of a mosque like the Islamic Center of Tennessee, believed to be the state's largest, alongside older men and women in traditional robes, scarves and skullcaps.

Ali Nooraddiin's job is to bring some order to this throng. Shouting in English into a bullhorn, he struggles to be heard over the din of the crowd.

"Brothers and sisters, if you're driving a red van please try to move your car. We have people trying to go to work."

He's balding and powerfully built, with a close-cropped beard and chunky black glasses. For this occasion, he's put on a dark suit, over an electric blue dress shirt.

Days like this drive home how much this Antioch mosque in an old cineplex has grown in the mere seven years since it was founded. He estimates the crowd at almost 6,000 people — an exaggeration, perhaps, but it's undeniably in the thousands.

As the Islamic Center of Tennessee's executive director, Nooraddiin is one of this mosque's most prominent figures — perhaps even more important to the day-to-day functioning than the imam himself. He oversees the construction effort, as community volunteers and donations turn it from movie house to house of worship. And he's responsible for programming, from routine Friday prayers to Eid celebrations.

Nooraddiin is originally from Somalia. Like the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, he is a Sunni. The same is thought to be true of most of the people who pray here — though mosques don't usually keep track. Unlike most Christians, Muslims aren't expected to attach themselves to a single congregation.

Men at the Islamic Center of Tennessee share a traditional Yemeni breakfast following prayers for Eid al-Adha.
Credit Chas sisk / WPLN

Nooraddiin settled in Middle Tennessee 16 years ago, and he became a U.S. citizen in 2006. But his wife and five children live in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. That's been somewhat by choice. His wife has family there and his younger children are enrolled in Finnish schools — considered to be among the best in the world.

But Nooraddiin nonetheless dreams of relocating his family to Middle Tennessee. His oldest son, Mohamed, will soon complete high school. And for young people in Finland — even native-born Finns — there aren't a lot of opportunities to start a career.

Youth unemployment in Finland has hovered around 20 percent for two decades.

"I told him ... when you come to the United States you're going to have a lot of opportunity to get a very good job and make money," says Nooraddiin.

But Nooraddiin's family is ambivalent. The climate for Muslims in the United States seems to be worsening. And there was an incident this summer when Mohamed attempted to visit his father in Nashville for the first time.

He got no farther than the Newark International Airport, where he was stopped by Homeland Security. No one has explained why. It took Nooraddiin several hours to reach him while he was detained.

"He's 19 years old and crying. And first thing he told me was, 'Dad, is this the America you was talking about to me?'" Nooraddiin recalls. "And I just told him that America's not like that."

A Homeland Security spokesman says he could not find a record of Mohamed's visit, but there could be a number of reasons an overseas traveler would be turned away.

Nooraddiin's situation is not unusual, says Mohamed-Shukri Hassan, a Nashville community activist who's also originally from Somalia. Many of the Muslims who have immigrated to Middle Tennessee over the past several decades still have family overseas. And while anti-Muslim prejudice has caused some to have second thoughts about immigrating, the pull of the U.S. remains strong, he says.

"There's no ceiling here," he says. "If you want to work 24 hours or three jobs, ain't no one going to limit you, and there's no other options in other countries like that. … So, I really understand what Ali, Brother Ali, is going through."

Worshippers congregate in the parking lot outside the Islamic Center of Tennessee after services.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Videoconferencing has made it easier for Nooraddiin to stay in touch with his family in Finland. He says they speak every day before or after his children go to school.

When it's midday in Nashville, it's about 7:30 in the evening in Helsinki. Mohamed has just come in for the evening. He recounts his attempt to visit Nashville and confirms that he now has misgivings.

"I don't really know because how they treat me was so badly," said Mohamed. "They was searching through my phone and looking at my pictures and they was showing the other officer and they was looking at me ... laughing."

But Mohamed's father remains optimistic the family can be brought around. After saying their farewells, Nooraddiin settles back into his office chair.

He says a mosque like the Islamic Center of Tennessee would be impossible in Finland. In Helsinki, he says, mosques tend to be small rooms on the ground floors of large apartment buildings — not a free-standing structure like the one he works for.

That's not because larger mosques aren't allowed in Finland. There is freedom of religion in Europe. But houses of worship are mainly built through donations, Nooraddiin notes. And the opportunities for Muslims to pull themselves up economically are much better in Tennessee.

"What we have here in the United States they don't have it back there," he says. "We own this very big building as our facility, and we worship God any time we want."

It's that combination — both the right to worship freely and the money to build their own space — that Nooraddiin says makes the United States so appealing to Muslims around the world.