Why President Obama's Mosque Visit Matters Now More Than Ever

02/02/2016 12:00 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2017
US President Barack Obama speaks about equal pay during an event to mark the 7th Anniversary of the signing of the Lilly Ledb
US President Barack Obama speaks about equal pay during an event to mark the 7th Anniversary of the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act January 29, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Good news travels fast, and this time, it's generated quite the buzz in cities across America -- particularly in Baltimore, Maryland.

Last Saturday, the White House revealed that President Barack Obama will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore this week.

He has visited mosques in other countries before, but this will be his first time visiting a U.S. mosque since he took office seven years ago.

While mosque leaders and White House staff coordinate logistics, this exciting news has dominated dinner table conversations especially in Muslim households as families discuss this historic occasion.

The timing is not coincidental. This long-awaited trip penciled on the president's itinerary comes during a critical time for members of the Islamic faith.

In recent months, anti-Muslim bigotry has taken on a pronounced and emboldened tone - creating a hostile environment where demonizing Islam and vilifying Muslims is normalized and profitable.


"GOP presidential candidates ... have been using distasteful tactics to curry favor among their base, and the fallout from their fear-mongering has affected Muslims on multiple levels."

Islamophobic rhetoric has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels in America, and many Muslims report feeling more dejected and disenfranchised than ever before.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom for all Americans. But increased incidences of Muslims being profiled, harassed and bullied reinforce the perception that it only applies to some.

GOP presidential candidates, political pundits and party elites have been using distasteful tactics to curry favor among their base, and the fallout from their fear-mongering has affected Muslims on multiple levels.

Bipartisan repudiation of bigoted attacks has been swift, though largely ineffective.

President Obama has also vocally denounced the hate speech and intolerance while pledging his commitment to defending religious freedom.

During his final State of the Union address in January, he emphasized that commitment:

When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is. It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country. 'We the People.' Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we've come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that's how we might perfect our Union.

This week, the president's words will be underscored by his mosque visit, described by the White House as an event to "celebrate American Muslims' contributions to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life."

During a roundtable with community members, the president is expected to deliver remarks stressing the importance of staying true to our core values of welcoming fellow Americans and speaking out against bigotry.

As an activist working to build interfaith relations and protect the rights of diverse Muslim communities, this occasion is especially important because I have witnessed firsthand the startling and grave impact of bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

"I don't want to be Muslim anymore," a Muslim friend's son confessed one night. Unprepared for this discussion, his shocked mother asked why. His response: "Muslims are bad people." Parents like her are anxious knowing they cannot protect their child from every attack on their religion.

In the aftermath of the tragic San Bernardino shootings, a 13-year-old Maryland Muslim student was bullied and taunted by a classmate who yanked off her headscarf. When reprimanded, he replied that he was "making jokes" -- except it was not funny and no one laughed.

Anti-Muslim bigotry impacts people regardless of their age and socioeconomic status, and it has both immediate and long-term consequences.


"The visit will not be a magic bullet to cure every problem or resolve every grievance. But it will go a long way to restore faith in American ideals..."

The president's visit will not silence critics demanding an end to drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere that kill innocent Muslims.

It will not ease the pressure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility that holds scores of prisoners detained indefinitely without trial for over a decade.

It should not and will not appease activists mobilizing against unconstitutional policies and programs that wrongly profile vulnerable communities or compromise the rights of law-abiding Americans.

The visit will not be a magic bullet to cure every problem or resolve every grievance. But it will go a long way to restore faith in American ideals and reassure concerned communities of their place in our country.

It will be a strong rebuke to those promoting bigotry and intolerance by sending the message that American Muslims must also be respected and valued in our country.

On Wednesday, as our commander-in-chief enters a U.S. mosque for the first time since assuming presidency, I will be thinking about my Muslim friend and her son, who is struggling to reconcile his American nationality with his Islamic faith.

As he greets guests and speaks on inclusion and mutual respect, I will remember the thirteen-year-old Muslim girl who was bullied and harassed because she wears an Islamic headscarf.

And as our president reaffirms his pledge to promote religious pluralism, I will renew my commitment to preserving the ideals of our nation he speaks of so it is inclusive of all people -- regardless of their religion.