With less than a year left in the White House, Barack Obama is still notching up firsts. On Wednesday he will make his first presidential visit to a mosque on American soil, a moment charged with symbolism but which many Muslims wanted far sooner.
Obama is to tour the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque, where he will meet community leaders and deliver remarks defending religious freedom and celebrating the contribution of Muslim Americans. The White House has described the visit as timely given anti-Islamic rhetoric that has infected this year’s election campaign.
But some Muslim groups are frustrated that the president waited until his eighth and final year.
“I do think it should have happened a long time ago,” said Haroon Moghul, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. “I don’t know why he has not visited a mosque before. If I’m being charitable, I would say it may just not have been a priority. Another reason is the optics may have caused him some grief, but that’s precisely why he should have gone in view of the current climate.”
Republican candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim visitors to the US after a Muslim couple inspired by Islamist militants killed 14 people in a shooting in San Bernardino, California, in early December. Rivals Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have also been criticised for inflammatory comments.
Obama used his state of the union address to to reject such sentiments. But Moghul said numerous Muslims – who make up about 1% of the US population – feel a deeper sense of disappointment in his presidency on issues ranging from the demonisation of communities to his use of drones in foreign wars and response to the Arab spring.
“Many Muslim communities feel they have not been given as much as they were promised,” said Moghul. “They are among those minorities who are locked-in Democratic voters so they feel taken for granted.”
In his first year in office, Obama made a landmark speech in Cairo that set out a vision for “a new beginning” to bridge the divide between Islam and the west. Moghul added: “The Arab spring was a moment of opportunity and there was a lack of follow through.”
Islamic leaders have been lobbying for Obama to set foot in a US mosque for years. The Washington Post reported that a month ago several prominent Muslims met senior White House officials and renewed the request, ideally to include former president George W Bush, amid concerns over rising Islamophobia. Bush went to the Islamic Cultural Center of Washington six days after the 11 September terrorist attacks and insisted, “Islam is peace,” and “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”
GOPUSA Editor’s Note: What kind of message does Obama send when he visits a mosque steeped in extremist ties? As Fox News points out, “The controversy centers around the Islamic Society of Baltimore’s former imam, who has ties not only to the Muslim Brotherhood but the Northern Virginia mosque where the radical Anwar al-Awlaki used to preach.” The former leader of the mosque has also made statements justifying the use of suicide bombings in certain situations. Can we please stop coddling radicals?!
The Islamic Society of Baltimore describes itself as one of the biggest Muslim organisations in America with thousands of affiliated families. In 2014 it was featured in the popular American podcast Serial which documented the story of Adnan Syed, a teenager who was accused of killing his former girlfriend. Obama’s visit on Wednesday comes after a speech last week at the Israeli embassy in Washington and attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast later this week.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said: “I think this sort of fits in the constellation of events the president is doing to talk about religious liberty and to talk about the roll that faith plays in our public debate. I think it will also be an opportunity for the President to talk about the role that faith plays even in his own life.”
Asked why the president had left a mosque visit until so late, Earnest replied: “I think it’s hard to sort of explain why we didn’t do something. I think I can do my best to try to explain to you why we are doing something. And I think in this case it’s an opportunity for the President to celebrate the contributions of the Muslim-American community to our country.
“It’s also an opportunity to reaffirm that religious freedom and religious tolerance is central to our way of life in this country. It’s certainly central to the kinds of values that were present at the formation of this country, and those values endure more than 240 years later.”
Obama has been inside several mosques overseas but never one in America while serving as president. Wednesday’s visit could be the latest sign that he feels liberated in his second term without the concerns of re-election. Last year he felt able to visit Kenya, the country of his father, and joke at the expense of critics – including Trump – who had peddled conspiracy theories that he was born there. “I’m the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States,” he told a delighted crowd in Nairobi.
In similar fashion, some opponents have claimed that Obama is a Muslim posing as Christian and therefore weak on tackling Islamist terrorism. Surveys have found that 29% of Americans and nearly 45% of Republicans think he is a Muslim. Bush never had such perception constraints.
Robert McKenzie, visiting fellow in the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: “I talk to folk all over the country and I think there is a sense of disappointment. They don’t want to hear the word ‘tolerance’; they want to hear the word ‘respect’. They want to be treated with the same dignity and respect as every other American.
“They are asking, ‘Why isn’t there more outrage when Donald Trump is attacking a religious community? What would happen if these things were being said about another religious community, any religious community?’ There would be outrage on both sides of the aisle. There is concern about how this trickles down to kids at school being bullied.”
McKenzie welcomed Obama’s mosque stop as “long overdue” and “vital” but said he would do better to highlight on-the-ground examples of positive Muslim activism. He noted how groups of Muslim Americans banded together to donate 30,000 bottles of water to people in Flint, Michigan, after its contamination crisis. “I do think that rather than visiting a mosque or holding a roundtable, these stories, which rarely get out of a local context, need to be told and amplified.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations says the number of incidents targeting mosques in America reached a record in 2015 amid “a spike of anti-Muslim bigotry”. Ibrahim Hooper, its spokesperson, said: “We’ve been asking the president to visit an American mosque for years now and are just glad he’s finally going to do it. We welcome the move and hope it sends a message of inclusiveness and diversity that are an essential part of American values.”
The Islamic Society of Baltimore did not respond to requests for comment. Its voicemail directed all media queries to the White House.
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