Source: Gulf News
Washington: President Obama will make the first visit during his presidency to a US mosque, the White House announced on Saturday, part of the administration’s push to promote religious tolerance at a time when rhetoric linking Islam with terrorism is growing.
On Wednesday, the president will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a sprawling community centre in the city’s western suburbs that serves thousands of people with a place of worship, a housing complex and schools, according to its website. It is one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s largest Muslim centres and describes itself as aspiring “to be the anchor of a growing Muslim community with diverse backgrounds, democratically governed, relating to one another with inclusiveness and tolerance, and interacting with neighbours in an Islamic exemplary manner.”
The president is making the visit “to celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life,” a White House official wrote in an email 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 neighbours; our co-workers, and sports heroes — and our men and women in uniform defending our country.”
At the Islamic Society, the president will hold a round-table discussion with community members, the official said.
The visit will be part of the tightrope-walking Obama has done during his presidency around Islam.
For years, Muslim Americans have lobbied him to visit a mosque, citing Islamophobia. At the same time, a segment of Obama’s critics have said since he took office that he is a Muslim pretending to be Christian, and that he plays down the religious aspect of Muslim extremism. Recent polls show that 29 per cent of Americans and nearly 45 per cent of Republicans think he is a Muslim. The visit comes in the last year of his presidency.
The possibility of a mosque visit came up again a month ago, when several prominent Muslim Americans met with senior White House officials to discuss concerns about rising hostility toward people of their faith. During that session _ which was attended by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Muoz and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes — the Islamic leaders asked for Obama to visit a mosque, ideally with former president George W. Bush.
Presidents rarely visit houses of worship, aside from 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 Centre 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.”
While Islamophobia has been an issue for some time, particularly as the Daesh has gained strength in Iraq and Syria, it intensified once Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates began calling for a halt to refugees from the Mideast after terrorist strikes in Paris and San Bernardino, California, late last year.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (right) have suggested screening asylum seekers on the basis of religion and accepting only Christians. And in December, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of the entry of Muslims to the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”