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President Obama’s mosque visit gets mixed reviews

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Feb 13, 2016 - 3:18:11 PM

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President Barack Obama signs remarks for introducer Sabah Muktar backstage prior to speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque and Al-Rahmah School in Baltimore, Md., Feb. 3, 2016. Photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

BALTIMORE—President Barack Obama’s first visit to a U.S. mosque, was condemned by critics who questioned the choice of the Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB), seen by some as linked to terrorism and by some Muslims who viewed the visit as a slap in the face considering the countless number of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that have killed innocent Muslims under his watch.

However, his supporters were impressed with his words of support for Islam and the rights of Muslims to live in America without fear. 

“And so if we’re serious about freedom of religion—and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country—we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths.  And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up.  And we have to reject politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion,” said the President during his Feb. 3 visit.

Pres. Obama meeting with attendants. Photo: Courtesy of Imam Saafir Raab
This is the last year of his term but drone strikes which continued from President George W. Bush’s administration and Guantanamo Bay prison which is still open in spite of Pres. Obama’s promise to close it and American foreign policy that backs war across the Middle East, makes the first Black president’s visit to a U.S. mosque highly scrutinized and receiving mixed reviews.

The hashtag #toolateObama was all over social media in response.  On Twitter, @AfrixaAF wrote, “Years of surveillance, drone strikes an negligence and a visit to a Masjid is supposed to mean what? Fix what?” And, @DarakshanRaja wrote, “This entire speech was paternalistic to Muslims.  It belittled our pain, the collective punishment we face.”

The U.S. campaign to go after Islamic terrorists abroad has often come at the expense of civilians. According to a 2015 report by The Intercept an alleged 90 percent of casualties in one drone attack in Afghanistan were civilians. The Intercept is an online investigative news magazine.

“Despite the small number of people on the kill list, in 2011 and 2012 there were at least 54 U.S. drone strikes and other attacks reported in Yemen, killing a minimum of 293 people, including 55 civilians, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,” notes The Intercept.

Critics of the President’s choice of ISB were concerned for their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism by its former Imam Mohamad Adam El-Sheikh. 

The President’s Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained to media why this masjid was chosen, “I know that there has been some criticism. … This is an institution that is making a valuable contribution to its community.  There is a school here that’s educating children.  There are medical services provided in this facility.  And this is a faith community that regularly speaks out against extremism.” 

The New York Times featured an op-ed, from Asra Q. Nomani and Ify Okoye who criticized the President for giving tacit approval to ‘gender apartheid’.

“While the free world awaits a Muslim reformation, the leader of the free world shows blatant disregard for gender equality by visiting a mosque that treats females like second-class citizens,” says Raheel Raza, a Pakistani-Canadian activist, author and cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement.

Imam Saafir Raab, CEO of Interculture, a consulting firm, helped organize Mr. Obama’s visit and was in the private meeting with the President to discuss life as a Muslim in America.

 “There are people who will criticize you even when you do something perfect.  There are gender separations in other forms of American and religious life that nothing is said about,” he told The Final Call.

“Genders are separated in the synagogue and some Christian faiths.  The boy scouts and girl scouts are separated.  There are private and some public schools that are separated for boys and girls.  These critics are giving a misrepresentation of the facts.”

Pres. Obama’s visit showed a very diverse picture of Islam in America.  The private meeting and the audience for his address contained a mix of Black, White, male, female, immigrant, convert, young and old.  It also included U.S. Congressmen Keith Ellison (D-MN)  and Andre Carson (D-IN), who are Muslim. 

Also present were fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first hijabi (Muslim woman who wears a hijab) to represent America in the Olympics, Kameelah Mu‘Min Rashad, founder of Muslim Wellness Foundation, Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Chicago- based Inner-City Muslim Action Network and Dr. Suzanne Barakat.

Dr. Barakat’s brother Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21  and Yusor’s sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot in the head and killed at their apartment complex in Chapel Hill, N.C. last year. The accused gunman, Craig Hicks, 46, was indicted for three counts of murder and discharging a firearm. Local authorities blamed the killings on an ongoing parking lot dispute but the U.S. Justice Department is reviewing the F.B.I’s investigation to determine if hate crime charges will be filed.

“The President listened carefully in the meeting to what it’s like being a Muslim in America from our mental health issues to being victims of law enforcement to those who’ve suffered violent attacks,” said Imam Raab.

“I spoke about the need to recognize that Islam in America has always been at the center of public service and social justice”

The President’s visit was widely received by many around the country.  Republican Presidential candidate  and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show, “It‘s important for the President to lead in this regard.”

The president was introduced by Sabah Maktar, a Black student at the University of Maryland‘s Baltimore campus, where she is studying biology as part of a pre-med program.

“Some of us may find ourselves doubting where we fit into our society. Personally this visit by the president is an affirmation ... an assurance to Muslim American kids constantly bombarded by anti-Muslim slogans that they belong,”  she said.

Imam Talib M. Shareef from Masjid Muhammad, The Nation‘s Mosque welcomed the President’s remarks.

“For the President to choose a house of worship for Muslims to deliver such an important message to our nation, is a clear statement to Muslims and all Americans that, as he stated, ‘We can’t be bystanders to bigotry. And together, we’ve got to show that America truly protects all faiths’,” said Imam Shareef. Masjid Muhammad is the first mosque built from the ground up by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, patriarch of the Nation of Islam.

The president noted, that Muslims are on the front lines protecting all faiths, all lives, and our way of life, said Imam Shareef.

“He said, Muslim Americans keep us safe. They’re our police and our firefighters. They’re in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces—meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom.’”

Final Call Staff contributed to this report.