February 5, 2016

On Obama’s First Presidential Visit to a U.S. Mosque

President Obama greeted families in an overflow room after speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque.

(Obama’s visit) is a way to say that Muslims are a legitimate component of the American religious landscape, which is an important message in the current rise of Islamophobia. At the same time, it comes late, too late, since Obama has not expressed any strong opinion vis a vis Islam and Muslims in the U.S. over his two terms. It may be because some Americans still think he is a Muslim, and that he can be perceived as partial.

— Jocelyne Cesari, Visiting Professor of Religion and Politics, director of Harvard’s Islam in the West Program (Harvard Divinity School interview)

The comment by Professor Cesari exposes a political calculation. Are we to commend Obama for the photo op and his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore? Or, should he be taken to task for his first visit to a mosque in the U.S. since he was elected over seven years ago?

The comment above about ‘some Americans still thinking he’s a Muslim’ feels a little tepid. We know Donald Trump stoked the connection in a slanderous and irresponsible way just a few months ago, and the visit this week hardly went unnoticed. And the use of the word “still” — as in “Americans still think he is a Muslim” refers to the intense effort to stereotype the relatively unknown Obama both religiously and racially during the ’08 campaign.

As a visual refresher, take a look at the ObamaPhobia talk I presented at Netroot Nation in August 2008. You remember “the Barack-Michelle terrorist fist bump?”

It’s easy to blame Obama for avoiding any visuals fueling connection to Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. As the country’s moral leader and America’s first black president, what could be more important than defying these stereotypes? At the same time, Obama is well-known for caution in moving the needle — for taking an incremental approach to fundamental change. Looking at it that way, the fact the visit occurred and this photo circulated without a lot of fanfare or blowback might be its own validation.

(photo: Drew Angerer for The New York Times. caption: President Obama greeted families in an overflow room after speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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