Too Little, Too Late? Obama to Make First Presidential Visit to American Mosque

Even George W. Bush visited a mosque months after his inauguration. What took Obama so long?

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It should not be front-page news that a U.S. president is planning to visit a religious institution.

But amid the disturbing rise of Islamophobic incitement and violence in the United States, President Barack Obama’s announcement on Saturday that he will make his first visit as president to an American mosque—the Islamic Society of Baltimore—has nabbed widespread attention.

The planned visit, however, has also raised eyebrows among some Muslim-Americans, who wonder what took the president so long—and whether the bar has been set too low. Former President George W. Bush immediately visited a mosque after the 9/11 attacks, using it as a setting to ostensibly counter an upsurge in intolerance across the country. Obama, on the other hand, has taken some seven years to enter an American one.

“This visit is too little, too late,” Dr. Maha Hilal, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, told AlterNet.

“When these symbolic acts are performed, they are more dangerous than they seem in that they build support for the president while numbing people to the fact that, under his presidency, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been detained, tortured, and extrajudicially assassinated,” Hilal continued.

The White House said on Saturday that the visit, slated for Wednesday, will “celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life.”

“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,” the White House statement continued.

Located in the western suburbs of Baltimore, the massive Islamic Society of Baltimore serves thousands of people and includes housing and educational services.

Falling during the final year of his second term, the visit takes place with Islamophobic sentiment at record levels.

“For a number of years we've been encouraging the president to go to an American mosque,” spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told The Baltimore Sun. “With the tremendous rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in our country, we believe that it will send a message of inclusion and mutual respect.”

While Obama has been the target of a sustained campaign of right-wing demonization and lurid rumors that cast him as a crypto-Muslim, he has hardly diverged from longstanding American policies that have inflamed opinion in the Middle East.

According to the calculations of Micah Zenko of the Council of Foreign Relations, in 2015 alone, the U.S. dropped roughly 23,144 bombs on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia--all of which are Muslim-majority countries.

What’s more, Obama’s visit immediately follows the president’s approval of sweeping new visa requirements that discriminate against people of Iraqi, Sudanese, Syrian, and Iranian descent.

While Obama’s visit is sure to set off a fire-storm of far-right anger, Hilal also warned against the uncritical embrace of “surface-level measures.”

Referring to former President George W. Bush’s visit to a mosque early in his presidency, Hilal noted, “If that's our measure of having successfully engaged with the government, it’s an indication that we need massive political education. We need to focus beyond rhetoric. Rhetoric is not going to change policies.”

 

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.