In the four-and-a-half years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, members of the Islamic Society of Annapolis have dreamed of being able to teach non-Muslims about their faith.
But based in a cramped building along Forest Drive, the group of about 200 didn't have the facility to bring their message about Islam as a faith of peace and justice to the greater community.
They may have that facility soon, as construction has begun on 20 acres in Gambrills off Route 3 and St. Stephens Church Road for the society's new Mecca
Learning Center, which will include a mosque, school, library, athletic fields and a community center.
"The wake of 9-11 was a wake-up call for us. We are Muslim and we are American too, and we were just as shocked and hurt," said Imam Mohammad Arafa, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Annapolis. "But we were on the defensive and had to explain to people, because they do not know."
With the specter of terrorism still visible around the world, and the recent riots prompted by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper, Imam Arafa said his group's goal of opening a religious dialogue is still important.
"All the riots, all the violence, of any form, are completely denounced in Islam" Imam Arafa said. "Do not fight evil with evil."
Although a dozen mosques - two of them with schools - are spread around the state, this will likely be the first with an Islamic high school, which should help it draw a student body from around the region, according to Shama Farooq, civil rights director for the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Maryland and Virginia.
"We actually think it will be a milestone in the Muslim community," she said.
Although the school's religious teachings are meant to promote Islam, Imam Arafa said he will hire teachers from all faith backgrounds. He said he simply hopes to hire the best.
"This is a teaching of Islam, that you are given the best opportunity to perform," he said.
The school also will be open to people of all religions, he said. Through the library, athletic fields, day care and public space, the congregation hopes to make its campus welcoming to the community.