The event is a symbolic gesture to the Muslim community.
President Barack Obama on a trip to Malaysia. Photo by Pete Souza.
For the first time since he became president, Barack Obama will visit an American mosque this Wednesday. Apparently compelled by the recent rise of Islamophobic rhetoric, the commander-in-chief will be stopping by the Islamic Society of Baltimore in an interfaith gesture. For a guy who is so frequently accused of being a secret Muslim, seven years is a long time to wait before making the pilgrimage.
According to a White House statement, the president hopes to “to celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life.”
It adds, “The president will hold a roundtable with community members and deliver remarks, where he will reiterate the importance of staying true to our core values—welcoming our fellow Americans, speaking out against bigotry, rejecting indifference, and protecting our nation's tradition of religious freedom."
The visit, though a largely symbolic one, comes very late in his presidency. For comparison, George W. Bush (whose foreign policy decisions stoked Islamophobia in America in the post-9/11 years and whose national security initiatives alienated Muslim communities) visited a mosque only six days after 9/11. During the visit he declared that Islam is a religion of peace and that Muslim Americans should not fear an onslaught of racism and bigotry in the wake of the attacks. President Obama, on the other hand, has been battling an absurd right-wing conspiracy that he’s a secret Muslim—which might explain why he’s delayed the occasion.
This year, however, President Obama made Islamophobia a key theme in his State of the Union address. “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is,” he said in January. “It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
Muslim American advocacy groups have been urging the president to make a mosque visit for the past seven years, and those requests have become more urgent in light of escalating hostility toward Muslim Americans and Sikhs (who are often mistaken as Muslims). Mosque-goers from the Islamic Society of Baltimore are reportedly excited about the visit. (Fans of the podcast Serial may recognize the center as the mosque that Adnan Syed once attended.)
“Many organizations, including ours, have been calling on Obama to visit a mosque, specifically to address the anti-Muslim sentiment that we see more recently,” said Zainab Chaudry, the Maryland representative for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to Al Jazeera. “His visit has been the subject of many dinner table conversations. The local Muslim community is extremely excited.”