Why It Matters That Obama Is Finally Visiting An American Mosque

CREDIT: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, Pool

President Barack Obama with first lady Michelle Obama, talks to Grand Imam Ali Mustafa Yaqub during their visit to Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010.

On Wednesday, President Obama will make his first visit to an American mosque since he assumed the nation’s highest office. The visit to a mosque in Baltimore next week is a part of the administration’s effort to address mounting hate crimes against Muslims and vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric from top political contenders.

Obama will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in Catonsville, Maryland, to “celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life,” according to a White House statement. The statement did not specify why that particular mosque was selected.

The president has visited mosques around the world, and made his first visit to a synogogue in May. 

Citing what they believe to be an alarming increase in the level of Islamophobia in the U.S., however, Muslim leaders have been increasingly vocal in calling on Obama to visit an American mosque.

“For a number of years we’ve been encouraging the president to go to an American mosque,” Council on American Islamic Relations spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said. “With the tremendous rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in our country, we believe that it will send a message of inclusion and mutual respect.”

That need feels even more prescient to some after several Republican candidates called for a halt of Muslim immigration to the U.S. and increased surveillance of Muslims in America.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump was the first to make such appeals, followed closely by many presidential hopefuls. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Florda Gov. Jeb Bush suggested that only Christian asylum seekers should be allowed to settle in the U.S.

Two-thirds of Republican voters polled and nearly half of all American voters said that they would favor a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S.

That level of anti-Muslim sentiment is alarmingly high, even for Republican voters, according to some voters.

Mehdi Hasan, who hosts a news show on Al Jazeera English, said the extreme vitriol from Republican party members makes him long for President George W. Bush as he never expected he would. The Bush administration, Hasan wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “understood that demonizing Muslims and depicting Islam as ‘the enemy’ not only fueled Al Qaeda’s narrative but also hurt their party’s electoral prospects.”

President Bush visited a mosque in the days after 9/11 and announced that “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”

President Obama has made significant remarks about the importance of guarding the rights of Muslims during a time of terror threats.

During his State of the Union address this month, he seemed to directly call out figures like Trump by declaring, “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”

But with even President Obama waiting until his last year in office to visit an American mosque, that level of acceptance seems to signal a very different era when it comes to acceptance for Muslim Americans.

Obama’s visit to the Islamic Center will will closely follow the Iowa Caucus, and might be a way for Obama to send a strong message about the place of Muslims in America.

Nearly half of GOP voters in Iowa believe that Islam shouldn’t even be legal within the U.S.