President Obama, who for years has been forced to fend off false claims that carry clear racial undertones –that he’s Muslim or was born in Africa – will visit a mosque for the first time in his presidency.
The visit is deeply symbolic for many Muslim Americans, coming from a president who until fairly recently has shied away from addressing the community’s issues head on and is now making those gestures late in his second term.
But Obama’s remarks Wednesday before the Islamic Society of Baltimore are also a marker of the times. A pair of terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have stoked fears and undermined the American public’s sense of security. Much of the public response has cast implicit blame on Muslims.
Governors, members of Congress and 2016 presidential candidates, most all Republicans, have proposed everything from restricting travel and refugee resettlement to an outright ban against any foreigner who practices Islam. With those actions have come intense rounds of Islamophobic sentiment that has even bled into violence against Muslim Americans.
For leaders in the American Muslim community, the president’s visit marks a hard-won victory that took years of lobbying. But the timing couldn’t be more critical for a community desperate to see the demagoguery stop.
“It sends a message to that cottage-industry of Muslim-bashers out there that there is pushback from American leaders,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, took great strides to reach out to Muslim Americans in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. He visited a mosque just six days after the Twin Towers fell to emphasize that Islam is not the face of terrorism.
Obama has a complicated relationship with Muslim Americans in trying to balance national security in rooting out terrorism while respecting the community’s civil liberties. At times, the federal government has gotten that wrong, with instances of sweeping surveillance of mosques that have angered the community. But in recent months, Obama has steadily increased his calls for tolerance and taken a stance against hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, says Obama has chosen to stay neutral because for much of his candidacy and presidency, he himself has dragged into the air of intolerance.
“He has stayed away from Muslim issues until very recently,” Patel said. “He’s been dogged by these allegations that he’s Muslim, which is its own problem.”
Indeed, a CNN/ORC poll from last September found that 29% of Americans still question whether Obama is in fact Christian. Another 13% said they believed he was born outside of the U.S. and therefore ineligible to hold office.
Ironically one of the ring-leader in the so-called “birther” movement against Obama is now a top contender in the Republican presidential primary – Donald Trump. Uproar and conspiracy theorist swelled to such great heights that the White House in 2011 was forced to release the president’s long form birth certificate to dispel the false rumors.