Barack Obama’s first visit to a mosque as president Friday was hailed by a wide range of Muslims. But there was also an undercurrent of criticism that even as he praised Muslims as valued Americans, his speech saw them in the context of terrorism.
“At a time of rampant fear-mongering and anti-Muslim hysteria, President Obama’s speech was a reminder of the need to defend American values of religious freedom and equality,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “However, it is unfortunate that so much of the speech viewed American Muslims through a counterterrorism lens.”
That sentiment was echoed by Robert L. McKenzie, a visiting fellow for the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at The Brookings Institution, a Washington research center. “It is regrettable that nearly every discussion about American Muslims by senior government officials must involve some reference to terrorism,” he said.
He said Obama “should have muted any reference to terrorism, ISIS” during his visit. “The central plank of the discussion should have been on supporting American Muslims,” he said. “One hopes that that will one day change.”
Obama spent several hours at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, holding a round table discussion with a dozen Muslim community leaders, including Khalid Latif, the chaplain at the Islamic Center at New York University and Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad, a chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Islamic Society of Baltimore has been serving the area for more than 47 years.
“The first thing I want to say is two words that American Muslims don’t hear often and that is thank you,” Obama said.
Zainab Chaudary, the Maryland outreach manager for the Council of American Islamic Relations, called Obama’s visit “a significant step in the right direction.”
But the criticism also flowed. “The Obama administration should identify and amplify stories of ordinary American Muslims who are making meaningful contributions to the US every day, often in ways that have nothing to do with religion,” McKenzie said. As an example he mentioned Muslims in Michigan who’ve provided 30,000 bottles of water in Flint, where the water supply is contaminated with lead.
As for Obama, “He doesn’t get points for simply showing up at a mosque and saying some nice words, with only a few months left of his time as president,” said Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, an editor at the liberal website ThinkProgress.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect attributions for the quotes in the last two paragraphs.