Obama visits mosque for first time as president. What took him so long?

The President plans to visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore next week in a show of support for religious freedom as Muslim American communities report increased threats. 

Manuel Balce Ceneta/ AP
President Barack Obama marks the 7th anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House on January 29. The White House has announced that the President will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore on February 3, his first official visit to a U.S. mosque, to show support for religious tolerance.

President Barack Obama will visit an American mosque next week, the White House announced Saturday, in a show of support for American Muslim communities facing increased threats in the wake of Islamic State attacks around the world and anti-immigration rhetoric focused on Muslim asylum seekers.

Many American Muslims view the president's visit as welcome, if not long overdue.

For years, Muslim groups have hoped that Obama would support words and policies in support of Muslim Americans with an actual visit. Although he has toured historic mosques on official trips abroad, Obama has yet to visit any in America. 

His February 3 visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore will not be a first for a sitting US President. Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the founding of the Islamic Society of Washington in 1957, and four decades later, within days of the September 11 Al Qaeda attacks, George W. Bush visited the Islamic Society to say "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam." During that speech, Mr. Bush said threats against American Muslims represented "the worst of humankind."

Obama has frequently defended Muslim Americans' rights and decried divisive rhetoric, claiming not only that it goes against American values, but ultimately supports the goals of terrorist groups like ISIS. Actually visiting a mosque, however, as many groups have invited him to do, may be more politically risky than his predecessors' trips, thanks to increasingly hostile perceptions of Muslims, and persistent beliefs that Obama himself is Muslim. The President is a Protestant Christian. 

The President's February 3 visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore will "reiterate the importance of staying true to our core values — welcoming our fellow Americans, speaking out against bigotry, rejecting indifference, and protecting our nation's tradition of religious freedom," White House officials said in a statement. On Wednesday, Obama spoke out against anti-Semitism at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Israeli Embassy.

In recent months, Obama has often highlighted the need for religious tolerance for all Americans, responding to alarm over Muslim immigration after the Paris attacks on November 13, and shootings in San Bernardino, California on December 2. Among the most extreme proposals was GOP front-runner Donald Trump's proposal to ban all Muslims from the United States, which drew criticism from both sides of the aisle, who highlighted religious freedom as a cornerstone of American democracy.

But Muslim American groups have reported an increase in threats and attacks. In late April, at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a 3,000-person congregation, an anonymous caller threatened to bomb a children's bus. Soon after, another anonymous call threatened to "spill Muslim blood."

"When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer," Obama said during the 2016 State of the Union address. "That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country."

Following the San Bernardino attacks in December, Obama said that defining the fight against radical terrorists as "a war between America and Islam" supports ISIS's goals, and noted that the majority of ISIS's victims are also Muslim. 

In December, when White House officials met with religious minority leaders to discuss threats against their communities, Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy group, encouraged the President to visit a mosque alongside George W. Bush. "I think it would be enormously comforting and also send a powerful message to Americans about recommitting to religious freedom," Ms. Farhana said, according to the Washington Post. 

Obama's previous decision to turn down mosque invitations have disappointed many Muslim communities. Two Democratic presidential candidates, however, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, have made stops at mosques on the campaign trail. 

One of oldest mosques in America, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also invited Donald Trump to pay a visit ahead of the state's February 1 primaries. As of January 12, mosque leaders had not received a response. 

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