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Obama Visits U.S. Mosque, a Mere 15 Years After Bush Did

What took so long?

US President Barack Obama attends a roundtable discussion with members of the Muslim community while visiting the Islamic Society of Baltimore February 3, 2016 in Windsor Mill, Maryland. 
Seven years into his presidency, Barack Obama made his first trip to an American mosque on February 4, offering a high-profile rebuttal of harsh Republican election-year rhetoric against Muslims. 
 / AFP / Mandel Ngan        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama attends a roundtable discussion with members of the Muslim community while visiting the Islamic Society of Baltimore February 3, 2016 in Windsor Mill, Maryland. Seven years into his presidency, Barack Obama made his first trip to an American mosque on February 4, offering a high-profile rebuttal of harsh Republican election-year rhetoric against Muslims. / AFP / Mandel Ngan (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time since taking office, President Barack Obama on Monday visited a mosque in the United States. That raises a complicated question: What took so long?

The visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore — a center founded by students and physicians in 1969, comprising nursery and K-12 schools, athletic programs, a health clinic, and a mosque — comes amid Islamophobic rhetoric and policy proposals by GOP presidential contenders on the campaign trail, including a call by New Hampshire primary frontrunner Donald Trump to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. It also comes with violence against U.S. Muslims on the upswing: according to analysis of FBI data by the the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a nonpartisan research and policy center, attacks motivated by anti-Islam sentiment have tripled since the Paris attacks last November, from 12.6 to 38 per month.

Obama used Monday’s visit as an opportunity to push back against that rising tide. “I know that in Muslim communities across our country, this is a time of concern and, frankly, a time of some fear,” he told those assembled. “Like all Americans, you’re worried about the threat of terrorism.  But on top of that, as Muslim Americans, you also have another concern — and that is your entire community so often is targeted or blamed for the violent acts of the very few.”

For the first time since taking office, President Barack Obama on Monday visited a mosque in the United States. That raises a complicated question: What took so long?

The visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore — a center founded by students and physicians in 1969, comprising nursery and K-12 schools, athletic programs, a health clinic, and a mosque — comes amid Islamophobic rhetoric and policy proposals by GOP presidential contenders on the campaign trail, including a call by New Hampshire primary frontrunner Donald Trump to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. It also comes with violence against U.S. Muslims on the upswing: according to analysis of FBI data by the the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a nonpartisan research and policy center, attacks motivated by anti-Islam sentiment have tripled since the Paris attacks last November, from 12.6 to 38 per month.

Obama used Monday’s visit as an opportunity to push back against that rising tide. “I know that in Muslim communities across our country, this is a time of concern and, frankly, a time of some fear,” he told those assembled. “Like all Americans, you’re worried about the threat of terrorism.  But on top of that, as Muslim Americans, you also have another concern — and that is your entire community so often is targeted or blamed for the violent acts of the very few.”

Muslims groups have called on Obama to visit mosques earlier, just as President George W. Bush did in the chaotic and angry aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as a show of leadership and support for tolerance. Until Wednesday, however, he resisted, perhaps because of a persistent impression among some Americans that he is secretly a Muslim. “I think that probably has something to do with it,” Peter Manseau, author of One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, told NPR. Some 43 percent of Republicans thought that Obama was Muslim as of last year, according to one poll. Last May, during his first visit to a synagogue as president, Obama said that he was an “honorary member of the tribe” — a joke impossible to imagine him making in a mosque.

Bush’s visit came much earlier in his presidency — and at a much more politically sensitive time, given the widespread American sadness and fury over the terror attacks that left more than 3,000 people dead. Six day after the attacks, President George W. Bush appeared at the Islamic Center of Washington and offered a plea for tolerance.

“In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect,” Bush said. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value…. Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”

While many Muslim groups criticized Bush for his treatment of Muslim detainees and the bloody wars he launched in Iraq and Afghanistan, they credit him with making frequent attempts to fight against Islamophobia at home.

Although Obama could be doing more to reach out to the Muslim community and combat racism and xenophobia, Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Foreign Policy that he faces a different political climate than Bush did.

“President Bush wasn’t under constant, scurrilous attack, with false allegations about his own faith,” Hooper said. “We appreciated when President Bush went to a mosque. And we appreciate what Obama is doing now.”

The visit, Hooper said, could “set a tone for our nation’s leaders to finally start pushing back against Islamophobia,” but called for “more than just visiting a mosque.”

While slower on the uptake than Bush, Obama has done much to reach out to the U.S. Muslim community, according to Hooper.

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” Obama said during his first inaugural address. “We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.” He has hosted Iftar dinners at the White House during Ramadan. And he has visited mosques during official visits abroad, in Egypt, Indonesia, and Turkey.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has already visited a mosque during his bid for the presidential nomination, appearing alongside Congressman Keith Ellison — a Democrat from Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, and one of two Muslims serving in the House of Representatives — in an interfaith dialogue session at Masjid Muhammad, in Washington, D.C.

Obama’s visit, whatever its relative merits and flaws, is part of a long tradition.

In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the opening of the Islamic Society of Washington. “As I stand beneath these graceful arches, surrounded on every side by friends from far and near, I am convinced that our common goals are both right and promising,” he said. “Faithful to the demands of justice and of brotherhood, each working according to the lights of his own conscience, our world must advance along the paths of peace.”

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @bsoloway

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