[US President Barack Obama speaks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore February 3, 2016 in Windsor Mill, Maryland. / AFP / Mandel Ngan (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)]
President Barrack Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Baltimore, on February 3, 2016, the first by him during his seven year old Presidency of US, is a landmark event. It is a strong message to the world at large that the mainstream American nation considers the American Muslim community, who at 3 million strong are the second largest religious minority after the Jews, an integral part of the American nation.
"Let me say as clearly as I can as president of the United States: you fit right here," Obama told the audience at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a 47-year-old mosque with thousands of attendees. "You're right where you belong. You're part of America too. You're not Muslim or American. You're Muslim and American."
The mosque that President Obama visited is located near the Security Mall, a prominent landmark in the western part of Baltimore city, about fifteen miles from my house. I often visit this mosque and when my children were young I used to take them there most Sundays to attend the Sunday Islamic school. The mosque is a nice two story structure built by the local Muslim community, most being immigrants. It comprises of a large prayer hall, a full time high school, a gymnasium and a couple of town houses for the mosque’s Imam and caretakers.
The President of the mosque Jamil Ahmed, a friend of mine, who is originally from Pakistan is a businessman. In fact he was away on vacation in Pakistan when news broke that President Obama was to visit the mosque. Jamil Ahmad returned quickly to Baltimore to take care of the affair. At the Wednesday event he delivered welcoming remarks to the President.
Although this is the first visit of President Obama to a mosque in US, he has visited mosques in Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia in recent years. In his visit to the mosque in Cairo, Egypt, soon after becoming President in 2009 Obama had boldly declared that “Islam has always been a part of the American history”.
In an election year in US when the anti-Muslim forces are creating a media storm against the 3 million strong American Muslim community, President Obama has been forthright in supporting the rights of America’s Muslim citizens. Only a week ago in addressing a gathering of the Democratic Party leaders he had said that, “We are not going to strengthen our leadership around the world by allowing politicians to insult Muslims or pit groups of Americans against each other. That's not who we are. That's not keeping America safe," Obama said, describing the rhetoric of the right wingers in the Republican Party as "phony tough talk and bluster and over-the-top claims."
It is ironic that some right wing Republican Party officials are criticizing President Obama for visiting the Baltimore mosque. The fact is that over the years several US Presidents including those from the Republican Party have visited mosques and have applauded the place of Islam in the American nation.
Fifteen years before President Obama’s visit to the mosque in Baltimore, on September 17, 2001, the then US President George W Bush – a Republican - had visited Washington DC’s first mosque on Massachusetts Avenue, barely six days after the horrendous Al-Qaida terrorist attack on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York city and the Pentagon in Washington DC, that had resulted in the deaths of over 3000 US citizens.
On that fateful day after hailing American Muslims as “friends” and “taxpaying citizens” in his comments at the mosque, Mr. Bush went on to say: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.” He quoted from the Koran: “In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil.” Then he continued in his own words: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
In fact the first mosque in the capital of America on Massachusetts Avenue was dedicated and inaugurated in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower.
However in being criticized for visiting a mosque Obama is in good company as two hundred years earlier in the year 1800 during his campaign for the office of the US President, President Thomas Jefferson was criticized by his adversaries who compared him with “the Arabian prophet of Islam”, and branded him an infidel.
[Kaleem Kawaja is Executive Director of the Association of Indian Muslims of America, Washington DC.]