President Barack Obama will meet with Muslim community members Wednesday in Baltimore on his first presidential visit to an American mosque, in a public show of support and solidarity.
The Associated Press reported that the White House announced on Saturday that Obama plans to hold talks with Muslim leaders at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. It is a sprawling community center in the city’s western suburbs that serve thousands of people with a place of worship, a housing complex and schools, according to its website. The visit will be a public affirmation of Muslims by Obama during a time when public sentiment seems to be growing against them.
A White House official wrote the following in an email on Saturday.
“The President believes that one of our nation’s greatest strengths is our rich diversity and the very idea that Americans of different faiths and backgrounds can thrive together – that we’re all part of the same American family. As the President has said, Muslim Americans are our friends, and neighbors; our co-workers, and sports heroes – and our men and women in uniform defending our country.”
The Washington Post reported that it was not immediately clear why the White House selected the Islamic Society in Baltimore, although it has been the subject of threats in recent months. Baltimore County beefed up security there last spring after it received phone threats.
Presidents seldom visit houses of worship besides the times when they have attended church for their own religious practices. Obama regularly attends religious services on key holidays. In May, he visited a synagogue for the first time as president.
In 2001, Bush visited the Islamic Cultural Center of Washington, six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, where he declared, “Islam is peace, and the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”
Obama has mostly distanced himself from U.S. Muslims, trying not to encourage the rampant theories that he is a Muslim who was born in Kenya, the country of his late father’s birth. Obama is American by virtue of his birth in Hawaii and has released his birth certificate as proof. He also is Christian. But segments of the U.S. population still believe neither to be true.
Obama has visited several mosques overseas, but never one in America while serving as president. As such, the visit will come during the final year of Obama’s two terms in office.
The White House said that in his address to be delivered at the mosque, Obama “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.”
Obama has been openly stood against calls by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others to block Muslims from being admitted to the U.S. over fears of domestic terrorism linked to radical extremist groups.
Obama has argued that such efforts are wrong and serve only to incite extremist groups, weaken America’s leadership around the world, and put U.S. security at risk.
“We’re not going to build progress with a bunch of phony tough talk, and bluster, and over-the-top claims that just play into ISIL’s hands,” the president said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. He spoke to House Democrats on Thursday as they strategized at a meeting in Baltimore. “We’re not going to strengthen our leadership around the world by allowing politicians to insult Muslims or pit groups of Americans against each other. That’s not who we are. That’s not keeping America safe.”
He added that “Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give into a base desire to find someone else — someone different — to blame for our struggles.”
“An attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths.”
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy group, said the following last month when she met with the president’s aides.
“I think it would be enormously comforting and also send a powerful message to Americans about recommitting to religious freedom — especially if we had Bush and Obama visit together.”
Islamophobia has been an issue for some time, particularly as the Islamic State has gained strength in Iraq and Syria. There is a hope that this visit would calm down the storm of hate, especially categorized in the Republican debates.
[Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images]