As President Barack Obama prepares to visit a U.S. mosque for the first time in his presidency on Wednesday, right-wing media outlets are scrambling to connect the Muslim house of worship to extremism — even though Muslim organizations argue such accusations are wildly overblown and arguably Islamophobic.
On January 30, the White House announced plans for President Obama to visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a large Muslim community center that offers thousands a place of worship and plays host to a housing complex and schools. White House officials explained that his first visit to a U.S. mosque was meant “to celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life,” a move that is likely geared toward combating the sharp uptick in anti-Islam rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates and a rash of unsettling and violent incidents enacted against Muslim Americans across the country.
Obama has spoken out against anti-Islam sentiment before, and there is ample precedent for visiting a mosque to help combat Islamophobia: former president George W. Bush also visited a mosque in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, declaring that “Islam is peace.”
Yet since last Friday, conservative outlets such as Fox News, the Daily Caller, Breitbart News, and the Washington Times have all rushed to deride Obama’s visit, most accusing the Islamic Society of Baltimore of having “historic” or “deep” ties to extremism or “radical Islam.” Herman Cain told Fox News that the visit amounted to Obama “want[ing] to go kissy kissy with the Muslim Brotherhood,” and Zuhdi Jasser — founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, who is often invited to speak at conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation because of his willingness to criticize fellow Muslims and the Obama administration — also decried the visit.
“As a Muslim American I’m just insulted, this is disgraceful that this is one of the mosques — or the mosque — that [Obama has] chosen to visit,” Jasser said during an interview with Fox & Friends.
The accusations are rooted in criticisms surrounding the mosque’s former imam Mohamad Adam El-Sheikh, who served the community from 1983 to 1989 and from 1994 to 2003. Despite the fact that Sheikh has never been accused of propagating extremism, conservatives bemoaned his former membership with Sudan’s chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he cut ties with the group in 1992. They also pointed to his former role as a regional director for the Islamic American Relief Agency, a local subsidiary of an international body accused of some extremist ties, and noted that he took over as imam of a D.C.-area mosque in 2003 where an al-Qaeda once preached fiery sermons — even though Sheikh never delivered those sermons himself.
The Daily Caller also harped on a 2003 quote it said showcased Sheikh “defending” suicide bombings as a form of self-defense.
“If certain Muslims are to be cornered where they cannot defend themselves, except through these kinds of means, and their local religious leaders issued fatwas to permit that, then it becomes acceptable as an exceptional rule, but should not be taken as a principle,” Sheikh told the Washington Post at the time.
Yet many right-wing outlets omitted that fact that the quote was a specific reference to the uptick in violence between Israelis and Palestinians — not Americans — and that Sheikh immediately added that "condemnation of indiscriminate killing of civilians" was widespread in his community.
This effort to connect the Baltimore Islamic center to extremism — by citing an imam that hasn’t worked at the center for a decade — may seem like a stretch, but Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, explained to Fox News that such accusations are a common tactic among anti-Islam activists. She said the campaign is commonplace, and part of what creates the exact kind of Islamophobic rhetoric that president Obama is visiting the center to speak out against.
“I know of no other religious community that has this kind of litmus test applied to it,” Berry said.
Indeed, participants in the Islamophobia “industry” — a term often used to describe the vast network of well-founded organizations that propagate anti-Islam positions — are known to repeatedly accuse organizations of funding or being otherwise connected to extremists as a way of deriding Muslims. According the Center for American Progress’ most recent report on Islamophobia, the tactic is often used as a way to justify larger conspiracy theories, such as the idea that “American Muslim organizations serve as the vanguard of an Islamist plot to take over America.”
Yet a new study released on Tuesday by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that while the number of Muslim Americans involved in extremist activity has risen in the past years (they’re often recent converts to the faith), the potential danger and influence of such individuals has been wildly exaggerated. What’s more, the intense scrutiny overlaid on Muslim Americans ignores the fact that U.S. citizens are seven times more likely to be killed by a right-wing extremist than a militant claiming to represent Islam, and ultimately just serves to incite hostility against Muslims.
“The demonization of Muslim Americans in some American social and political spheres has created a hostile climate far out of scale with the actual number of Muslim Americans involved in violence,” Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman and author of the Triangle Center report, told the Religion News Service.