Two years ago, Muslims here were mourning the loss of their mosque, a place of worship the close-knit community was forced to surrender after an arsonist burned it to the ground during the holy month of Ramadan.
This Ramadan was different.
On Monday, families gathered for the first time at a brand new, $2 million mosque to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a religious holiday observed by Muslims worldwide, which marks the end of the holy month.
Joplin, severely damaged by a tornado in 2011, has become an unlikely symbol of hope for Muslims, demonstrating that the faithful can prevail despite dire circumstances.
“It’s been a lengthy road, but we did it,” said Navid Zaidi triumphantly as he spoke about the new mosque. Zaidi, 48, a pulmonologist originally from Pakistan, said the new place of worship “means a lot to us as a small community. It feels really good.”
Tabassum Saba, 52, a psychiatrist in Joplin, said some in the community were even experiencing survivors’ guilt, as so many fellow Muslims are currently embroiled in the violence in Gaza.
The nondescript mosque in Joplin still smelled of new carpet and fresh paint as women covered in scarves made their way to a room with glass doors that opened to a larger room where men sat to pray. Imam Lahmuddin, the leader of the mosque, stood facing the prayerful, reciting the khutbah, or sermon.
Afterward, families posed in front of the new Islamic Center, beaming with pride and asking willing passers-by to take their picture. They were proud not only because they had a shiny new space for prayer, but also because it was the end of Ramadan, which meant they had faithfully fulfilled one of the five pillars of Islam by fasting from dawn until dusk for an entire month.
The scene was a stark contrast to the ashes Muslims in Joplin had confronted Aug. 6, 2012, when an arsonist burned the Christian church that the Islamic Society of Joplin had bought and converted to a mosque.
After the fire, Joplin Muslims used a temporary space in a strip mall to pray. A few in the city, however, objected to their presence. On a couple of occasions, men stationed themselves in the parking lot of the building, jeering at those who walked in or out. “Go back to your own country” they reportedly yelled.
Eventually the Islamic Society hired the Newton County Sheriff’s Office to protect them. Although the harassment stopped, Muslims are happy to once again have their own space.
“Getting the mosque back is like getting our home back,” said Iftikhar Ali, president of the Islamic Society of Joplin. “Praying there is just a different feeling.”
Laela Zaidi, 18, soon will leave Joplin to attend Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. Still, she said she is happy her family and the town will be able to enjoy the new center. “Joplin is not just growing economically; we should be growing culturally as well,” Zaidi said.
The mosque has yet to host its official opening. Members of the Islamic Society of Joplin still are debating whether they will build a minaret, an architectural feature distinct to mosques — a tall, slender tower with a balcony used to call Muslims to prayer. The minaret is under debate because of security concerns. A fence around the mosque already is planned.
Joplin’s mayor, Michael Seibert, said he’s glad Muslims have decided to remain. “I think we have a lot of great Muslims within our community,” Seibert said. “I’m just glad they’ve been able to find a location within the city.”
Meanwhile, Jedediah Stout, an Iraq war veteran who confessed to FBI agents that he had burned the mosque, is awaiting trial on a separate arson charge. Stout was arrested in October 2013 after he allegedly twice tried to set a Planned Parenthood clinic on fire. He has not been charged in connection with the mosque fire.
Police took Stout, who identified himself as a politically conservative Christian, into custody while walking along railroad tracks about five blocks from the Planned Parenthood clinic shortly after the fire. A black backpack containing accelerants and colored rope found on the center’s roof were traced to Stout. His fingerprints also were on a plastic bottle found in the gutter of the building. Authorities were able to obtain surveillance video. The trial is scheduled for Aug. 18. Stout is being held in federal custody at Green County Jail in Springfield, Mo.
Kamran Zafar, 43, owner of a gas station and convenience store in nearby Anderson, Mo., said Muslims here realize Stout probably is suffering from mental illness. “We understand nobody in their right mind would do something like that,” Zafar said. The incident was especially traumatic for the children, who could not understand why anyone would want to burn a mosque, Zafar said.
Although they are grateful to be living in what he described as the greatest country on earth, Zafar is mindful that the mosque could be attacked again. “All it takes is one knucklehead,” Zafar said.