Obama and the Mosque: The Timing and Its Meaning

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February 3, 2016; USA Today

In our own way, NPQ has tried to untangle some of the misconceptions about Muslims that have come about, particularly following the rise of ISIS this past year. We’ve said all along that Muslims do not have any particular responsibility to be vocal about their opposition to ISIS, as if the group didn’t represent a complete perversion of what Muslims believe. However, what Muslims do need are powerful vocal supporters to reaffirm that they are welcome. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore in an attempt to dispel anti-Islamic rhetoric.

In his 45-minute speech at the Islamic Society in Baltimore, President Obama emphasized how Muslims fit into the fabric of American society just like any other ethnic group.

“The first thing I want to say is two words that Muslim Americans don’t hear often enough,” Obama said. “Thank you.”

“We’ve seen children bullied, we’ve seen mosques vandalized,” he said. “It’s not who we are. We’re one American family. And when any part of out family begins to feel separate or second class, it tears at the heart of our nation.”

Specifically, President Obama took a moment to speak to young Muslims, many of whom have not lived in a United States not gripped by a war on terror: “There are voices who are constantly claiming you have to choose between your identities. Do not believe them. You fit in here. Right here. You’re right where you belong.”

“You’re part of America, too,” Obama said. “You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American. And don’t grow cynical.”

The visit is part of an eight-day span where he spoke to different religious groups, including Christians, Jews, and now Muslims. Last week, he spoke on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, showing solidarity with the Jewish people.

In part, the visit is significant because many Muslims feel alienated and stigmatized in Western society. Islamophobia has particularly perverted the image of a mosque as a safe gathering place and home for Muslims. After last year’s multiple terrorist attacks, France shut down several mosques on the suspicion that they were radicalizing attending Muslims, a trend in Europe that hasn’t spread widely in the United States.

While the U.S. government may not be systematically shutting down mosques, local residents have already demonstrated that they will take measures to prevent mosques from opening in their communities. As seen in Bayonne, New Jersey, Detroit, Michigan and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, among other places, opposition to mosques opening has been motivated to some degree by prejudices held toward Muslims. Looking past President Obama’s words, his presence in an actual mosque is a powerful sentiment—powerful enough, perhaps, that we can overlook that it took him eight years to enter one.—Shafaq Hasan