Reaction to Obama's mosque visit mirrors stark partisan divide

Republican criticism of Obama's historic address at the Islamic Society mosque Wednesday falls in line with a new report highlighting the partisan attitudes regarding American Muslims.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama greets children from Al-Rahmah school and other guests during his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Wednesday, Feb. 3. Mr. Obama made his first visit to a US mosque at a time Muslim-Americans say they're confronting increasing levels of bias in speech and deeds.

President Obama's first visit to a mosque has drawn sharp criticism from members of the Republican party. He's not the first president to visit a US mosque. His predecessor President George W. Bush visited a mosque in the first week after the 9/11 attacks, and delivered a very similar message. Both visits included presidential pleas for compassion amid heightened mistrust of Muslims in the wake of terror attacks. But the reaction this time around, was much more critical. A new poll released on the same day as Obama's visit offers insight into why that may be.

Americans are sharply divided about the kind of tone they feel the next president should adopt when discussing Islam, and those divisions lie clearly along partisan lines, according to a Pew poll released Wednesday.

Some 65 percent of surveyed Republicans say the next president should speak bluntly of Islam regardless of generalized criticism, pollsters found. On the other side of the aisle, however, seven in 10 Democrats said the next president should speak carefully about Islamic extremism to avoid criticizing the religion as a whole.

But the difference wasn’t always this stark. Even 2002, soon after the 9/11 attacks, Republicans and Democrats perceived American Muslims similarly: About 40 percent in each party felt that very few Muslims, if any, living in the US have anti-American tendencies. Flash forward 14 years, and for those on the right, that figure is now 29 percent, while it’s 54 percent for the liberals.

That shift in public opinion is reflected in – and arguably amplified by – Republican presidential contenders' swift criticism of Obama's visit.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump was among the first to criticize Mr. Obama for his trip. When asked on Fox News Channel about the president's excursion, he said, "Maybe he feels comfortable there."

The businessman grabbed the political spotlight long before launching into the 2016 presidential race, when he raised questions about Obama's birthplace and religion. His comments this week feed into that same narrative, and the persistent rumor that the president is a secret muslim.

"We have a lot of problems in this country,” Mr. Trump continued. “There are a lot of places he can go and he chose a mosque.”

“That's his decision, that's fine," he added.

But the real estate mogul isn’t the only Republican to take issue with Obama’s visit.

On his campaign trail in New Hampshire, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio accused the president of "pitting people against each other” by making an appeal to Muslim Americans.

"Look at today. He gave a speech at a mosque, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims," Mr. Rubio said at an Irish pub in Dover, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. "Of course there’s discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam."

"This constant pitting people against each other, I can’t stand that," he continued. "It's hurting our country badly."

Most Americans do agree that there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims – 60 percent of all respondents answered affirmatively. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Harry Bruinius reported Wednesday, many in the Muslim community have seen prejudiced and sometimes violent actions against them increase in the past years.

“Advocates continue to say that the current climate is one of the most dangerous they’ve ever seen, citing FBI statistics that show an uptick in reported hate crimes and more and more complaints of workplace discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” he wrote.

Although Obama’s symbolic visit may not have convinced some Republicans to dispel their "hugely distorted impression" of Muslim-Americans, it was successful in reassuring his Muslim constituents one of America’s most fundamental building blocks – religious liberty. 

“Obama coming to a mosque is a perfect counter message [to Islamaphobia]”  Saba Ahmed, president of the Republican Muslim Coalition, told the LA Times. “It’s opening a door for a lot of other people to do the same thing.”

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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