Bowling Green's Muslim community growing, changing

When it's time to pray, Azmir Husic goes to an ornate, new mosque with a tower on the outside and hardwood floors on the inside. It's a welcome change from the place where he used to worship: an old maintenance garage.

"We built this all the way from the ground, and we built it the way we wanted to build it," said Husic, president of the Bosnian Islamic Center on Blue Level Road. "It's really better ... more than 10 times better" than the garage where Bosnian Muslims once gathered.

As Bowling Green becomes more religiously diverse, the local Muslim community is not only growing, it's also changing. More than 10 years ago the local Muslim population was increasing due to an influx of immigrants, particularly Bosnians. Around that time, the Islamic Center of Bowling Green opened.

Now, two mosques operate in Bowling Green; the newest mosque, the Bosnian Islamic Center, officially opened at the end of May and has about 200 members.

The local Bosnian community expanded from 1998 to 2002, Husic said, when Bosnian Muslims fled their home country after a civil war tore the nation apart.

As the population grew here, Bosnian immigrants began talking about opening their own mosque. Most attended the Islamic Center until 2005, when several decided to split from that mosque and worship on their own.

They formed a membership committee, asking people to pay membership dues to go toward construction of the new mosque. Soon, they spent $60,000 to renovate an old maintenance garage on Dishman Lane. That's where some Bosnian Muslims worshiped for about five years until the new, $1.2 million mosque opened, Husic said.

The difference between the Bosnian mosque and the Islamic Center is mainly cultural. The Islamic Center is international, a place for Muslims of all backgrounds. But as the Bosnian population grew — now about 5,000 Bosnian refugees live in Bowling Green — some wanted a place to practice their own traditions, Husic said.

"They're Muslims, like we are, but ... we try to keep our traditions, too," he said. "So, we made the decision that we were going to separate."

There were some religious traditions that are practiced in Bosnia that local refugees wanted to continue, Husic said. For example, Bosnian Muslims believe in holding a seven-day prayer service after someone dies, and then praying again 40 days after the death; it's an attempt to pray the deceased into heaven, he said.

They also have special services when someone moves into a new house. They bring the family clothes, prepare food and usually an imam blesses the home, he said.

The new mosque has not affected the Islamic Center of Bowling Green on Morgantown Road, said Nagy Morsi, chairman of the board of the Islamic Center of Bowling Green.

Attendance has quadrupled over the past four or five years, and that's mainly due to a large number of non-Bosnian immigrants who have moved to Bowling Green and practice Islam. And several Bosnian Muslims still go to the Islamic Center, Morsi said.

"Nobody says, 'I'm Egyptian or I'm Arabic or I'm Bosnian' " at the Islamic Center, he said. "They say, 'I'm Muslim.' They say their prayers."

Morsi says there could be both positive and negative effects from the new mosque. On one hand, it's another place of worship for the large Muslim population here. On the other hand, because it's nationally oriented, the new mosque could be more divisive than unifying for the Muslim community, Morsi said.

Still, those who worship at the Bosnian Islamic Center say the new mosque is necessary because of the large Bosnian Muslim population in Bowling Green.

"The kids, if they grow up here, you want them to be part of the Bowling Green community," Amira Zukic, a Bowling Green resident and Bosnian refugee, told the Daily News. "But, at the same time, you want them to know where they came from."

About 2 million citizens, mainly Muslims, were driven from Bosnia in the 1990s after enduring genocide, torture, rape and imprisonment in concentration camps during the civil war among Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Eastern Orthodox Serbs. An estimated 100,000 people died during that time period.

Husic lost his father and four uncles in that war.

"They burnt our house, our mosque, our villages," he said. "Everything that belonged to us, they burned."

For that reason, the Bosnian Islamic Center's grand opening was a special and emotional experience for local refugees, many of whom remember being persecuted in their home country.

"I really cannot believe this is happening ... we come from Bosnia because we are Muslim, and we don't have our freedom there," Husic said. "This place and this city, they gave us the opportunity to have our life back again and to be normal."

They have encountered some minor discrimination here. A few teenagers have honked and shouted slurs as they've driven by the mosque. But there are more positive moments, like the time a woman stopped and complimented Husic on the mosque. In fact, local Muslims are largely treated well here, he said.

Even though the Bosnian Islamic Center recently opened, mosque leaders are looking to expand. Now, they're in the process of bringing in a full-time imam; the former imam got married and moved, and some members are educated enough to lead prayers in the meantime, Husic said.

They are also contemplating building an adjacent day care center, and purchasing land for their own cemetery. For Husic and others, it's still hard to believe, he said.

"You ask yourself, 'Is this real or is this a dream?' " Husic said. "We moved from Bosnia because we are Muslim, and they wanted everybody to clear out. Now, we are here, and we can be who we were 20 years ago."