Every year the ISGC hosts a Meet Your Muslim Neighbor event, during which curious locals can ask questions about Islam. But after a controversial election cycle and debate over President Donald Trump's unsuccessful attempt to institute a travel ban on seven Muslim majority countries, the turnout for this year's event Saturday was the largest they've ever seen.
More than 1,000 people flocked to the Islamic Center over the course of the afternoon, many of them smiling with family or friends in tow. For Chattanooga Muslims, the overwhelming interest from their neighbors was a welcome sign of solidarity.
"We do this every year, but this has been the most successful," said Bassam Issa, one of the founders of the center. "This is just tremendous."
Issa said he and his fellow Muslims believe hosting events such as this is important because it allows them to clear up misconceptions about their faith while building relationships with other Chattanoogans.
"The country has been so divided. It's been split in half," he said. "If you don't know someone or something, you're going to be afraid of that person or thing. People here can get to know us as human beings, neighbors, who are just like them."
The gymnasium at the Islamic Center was packed for most of the afternoon with large clusters of people either talking with Muslims or reading a series of informational posters about the faith lined up along the edges of the room.
Near the entrance, greeters welcomed visitors and directed them to a table where they could pick up a free Quran and then to a small pastry buffet in the back.
Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher made it a point to appear in uniform, chatting animatedly and taking photos with Muslims and non-Muslims. He cheered the work of the Islamic Center and said he's learned from his friends there.
"Just in my short time in Chattanooga, I've learned a great deal more about something I thought I already knew a lot about," he said. "My job is to make sure our whole community is safe, and that means building relationships with everybody."
Private citizens, too, said they were glad to come to the event and show their support for their neighbors.
"We wanted to show solidarity with the Muslim community," said Beverly Hayden. "I know some about the religion of Islam, but not a lot, and I'm always thrilled to learn. It's an opportunity to see they're people just like us and hopefully erase some of that fear."
Standing next to a stack of Qurans and pamphlets with information about the five pillars of Islam, Hayden spoke with a man wearing a sticker that said "ISGC host."
"If we wanted to invite you and your family over to dinner sometime, would that be possible?" Hayden asked.
The man's response was immediate and came with a smile.
Source: Times Free Press