Obama’s First U.S. Mosque Visit Came Late, But Still Means A Lot, Says Top Islamic Scholar


On Wednesday, President Barack Obama made his first visit to a U.S. mosque as commander in chief. In an impassioned speech to Muslims at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Obama denounced growing anti-Muslim bias, called for greater religious tolerance, urged Americans not to be “bystanders to bigotry” and told young American Muslims that “you fit in here.”

In the wake of Obama’s visit, The WorldPost spoke to scholar Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University. Ahmed (no relation to Huffington Post reporter Akbar Shahid Ahmed) has traveled throughout the United States to research the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What does Obama’s visit to a mosque mean for Muslims at this time?

It has high symbolic significance. In any case when the president of the United States does anything, it carries both symbolism and substance. In this environment of high Islamophobia, of widespread Islamophobia and growing Islamophobia, the fact that the president of the United States has even come to a highly visible fixture, a recognizable symbol of Muslim culture and identity which is a mosque, and sat and talked to Muslims, means that he’s embracing the Muslim community.

Because it’s happening in his last year, when he’s the lame-duck president, its substance is not what it would have been had he come seven years earlier, which is when people expected him to come. Why? Because he had just taken over, [and] his instincts were always to reach out to communities, to build bridges, to embrace minorities — which is what he did. Before he even took office, he said, ‘I’m going to close Guantanamo Bay as soon as I come to the White House,’ et cetera, et cetera.

Guantanamo Bay is still open. So I have no doubt that he would have wanted after taking over to have visited a mosque, to reassure the Muslim community — particularly when he would have been reminded that President George [W.] Bush, after 9/11, actually visited a mosque several times, and made some good statements. He said, ‘America is not the enemy of Islam, our problem is not with the religion, it’s with certain people,’ et cetera, which was very reassuring. It did not check or stop the Islamophobia, but it was reassuring.

Now if President Obama had said something as clear as that — he has been making statements which are pluralist, which have an exclusive message — but in the environment of growing Islamophobia, we have not been able to effectively check the prejudice, the hatred around Muslims. The random attacks on Muslims, on mosques, on women in hijab. The leading political figures of the land — not just ordinary figures, but presidential figures, who are actually saying, ‘If we get elected, we will ban all Muslims from coming to the United States, we will close all mosques, we will deport Muslims.’ Some are even saying we will have internment camps for Muslims.

With this very heated rhetoric, just the fact that he turns up is of high symbolism. If he’d come earlier and done something very substantial for Muslims, it would have made an impact on their lives, but at this stage, just the symbolism is all that they will get.

Obama participates in a roundtable discussion with members of the Muslim community while visiting the Islamic Society of BaltMANDEL NGAN/Getty Images
Obama participates in a roundtable discussion with members of the Muslim community while visiting the Islamic Society of Baltimore.

Is the visit too late? What kind of impact do you think it can have despite coming near the end of Obama’s presidency?

For the Muslim community, beggars cannot be choosers. If other major figures of this country — major figures, not ordinary people — are saying, ‘We will deport Muslims, we will lock them up, we’ll strip them of their nationality, this is a cult, it’s not even a religion, these are potentially all terrorists’ — if this is the kind of rhetoric they’re hearing, and then the president of the United States comes and says, you know, ‘I embrace you, I value you, you’re part of this society’ — I think we need to recognize that nuance.

Having said that, I perfectly understand the sense of disappointment with the Muslims. I share that, because I was hoping many years back that once Obama came in, he would actually live up to what he wanted to do. I sensed throughout that his heart wanted to move in this direction, but his head would tell him that you must weigh the pros and cons and you must look at the consequences in the American political arena.

It’s easy for us to discuss Obama as a political figure, but he is constantly attacked even now, even today, seven, eight years after he’s been president, by people who — and a large number, not just 1 or 2 percent of Americans — actually believe he’s a secret Muslim. Many of them believe he’s become the president to actually destroy America from inside. Many of them believe he’s the Antichrist — he’s been sent here to finish America and Christianity and so on. Now, in that environment, for him to even make such a bold decision to [come] to the mosque is just bold.

But I also want to hasten to add that if Obama had lived up to his instincts — to actually do what he’s done now, today — seven years back [instead], he would have lived up to the tradition of the greatest heroes that he admires. Here’s the irony. Obama admires people like [former President John] Kennedy. He admires people like Martin Luther King Jr. Now those are very bold people. If you read the history of these extraordinary American leaders, you will see that they were changing history. They were literally standing up with a flood coming down and saying, ‘I’m not going to budge, I’m going to stand here.’ So if he had taken that route, he would have [had] a major impact, but seven years back. So in that sense, this is too little, too late. But my answer to that is: Better late than never.

“For the world, the fact that you have Trump saying one thing and the president doing something else does matter.”

What does the timing of the visit mean, specifically with regard to [Republican presidential hopeful] Donald Trump, presidential elections and the current prevalence of Islamophobia in America?

Unfortunately, it is now so polarized, and President Obama himself is a figure of such controversy among certain circles — mainly Republican, mainly right-wing — that whatever he says will have the opposite effect [of what he intends]. So if he says, ‘Muslims are all right, they’re citizens, we must respect them, we must embrace them,’ he will not improve things for them. He will exacerbate things for them with those people. That is the tragedy.

However, we must not underestimate the symbolism of the president coming to a mosque, because this also plays abroad. The United States sometimes assumes that we live in a cocoon and we have huge metaphorical walls around the continent and nothing else matters. But the world is watching the United States. In the Middle East, in Africa, in China, in Russia, in India, people are watching the United States. So what Obama does or doesn’t do has an impact. And for the world, the fact that you have Trump saying one thing and the president doing something else does matter.

And there, I think, is the biggest contribution of the president going to a mosque. [People in other countries] may not know much about the day-to-day lives of Muslims in America, but they do know that when there was hatred towards Muslims, the president went out and said, ‘Here I am, I’m at a mosque.’ And that matters a great deal to people watching America, because then they feel, ‘Yes, the real America, the America of the Founding Fathers, the America of pluralism, the America of inclusivity, is still alive and well.’ And in that sense, however late, however lame it may seem to some people, to some Muslims, I think it also serves the purpose of strengthening the view of the Muslim community, both here in the United States and abroad.

President George W. Bush speaks during an iftar dinner with ambassadors and Muslim leaders, Sept. 17, 2008.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President George W. Bush speaks during an iftar dinner with ambassadors and Muslim leaders, Sept. 17, 2008.

Would a visit like this by future American presidents hold similar significance?

I think the biggest effect that a visit to a mosque will have will come from those people who take a contrary position. That is why President Bush coming from the White House to the mosque made such a huge impact, because Bush was seen in the Muslim world as someone who’s just launched a war on Afghanistan [and] launched a war on Iraq — two Muslim countries. So a lot of people are saying, ‘He’s the enemy, he’s right-wing, he’s determined to destroy Islam,’ and so on. And suddenly, there he was in a mosque.

With Obama, although he’s Christian and he represents the United States, at the same time everyone knows that his father was a Muslim from Kenya. However secular, [Obama’s father] was still a Muslim. [Obama] grew up in a very Muslim environment in Indonesia. He spent time in Muslim countries like Pakistan. He’s grown up in a culture where you would expect him to be saying, ‘All right, I’m going to visit a mosque because a lot of my friends are Muslims, and what’s the big deal?’ But, in fact, he didn’t do it, because he’s so defensive.

Now take a man like Trump or [Sen. Ted] Cruz who know very little, at least according to their statements, about Islam, and are making the most inflammatory statements about Muslims and Islam… I would urge Trump, I would urge Cruz, I would urge the leaders of the Republican Party who are making comments on Islam, to actually visit a mosque. To sit and talk to scholars. To learn about Islam. And then come to their conclusions.

It’s a free country. They can just postpone their remarks to have enough time to read a book about Islam or visit some Muslims. There are lots of Muslims who would be willing to talk to them. There are lots of good organizations that are doing active interfaith work. Call them and talk to them. If they still feel they have problems with Muslims, then by all means, go ahead. But if they feel that maybe they’ve learned something that’ll temper their doubt, I think a great service will have been done. They will then effect change.

It is [former President Richard] Nixon, the right-wing Nixon, Communist-hating Nixon, who goes to China and changes history. It is [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi, who represents the [Bharatiya Janata Party], the hard-core, right-wing BJP, who then comes to Pakistan, to Lahore, visits the home of [Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif and joins the birthday party of his granddaughter.

These are the epoch-making, the history-making, history-changing moments in history. That’s what you need from someone like a hard-right political figure. Obama saying nice things, or [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton, is what you’d expect. She’s been secretary, she’s been the wife of the president, she’s met Muslims, she’s had Muslim friends — she’s showing the respect that she would show to any minority, whether it’s Muslim or Jewish or any other — and we applaud her for that.

But what you need are the people who are actually condemning, creating an atmosphere which is highly inflammatory and dangerous and is provoking some of this violence towards these minorities. And unfortunately, it’s having two consequences. One is terrorizing minorities. I’ve met many Muslim women who are now fearful of going out in case someone assaults them or [does] something violent. And secondly, it strengthens those Muslims who would want to do violence, because they would say their argument is, ‘The West is the enemy, the West is attacking us.’ They will say: ‘If you don’t believe us, listen to what Trump is saying. Listen to what Cruz is saying. Listen to these politicians. This is the enemy, do you think you can make friends with them? Come and join us.’ So in the end, it does not help us as Americans. It weakens us. It divides us as Americans. This is an argument that they don’t fully appreciate.

“It is Nixon, the right-wing Nixon, Communist-hating Nixon, who goes to China and changes history.”

Thinking of your extensive work on Islam in America and your Journey into America project, what does Obama’s mosque visit mean for the larger Muslim-American community? 

Number one, his visit is not only of great significance to Baltimore, but to Americans. Because the problem today is not just Baltimore. It’s not restrictive. It concerns all Muslims, wherever they are living in the United States.

Number two, the substance of what he said or didn’t say isn’t what’s important, because a president’s speech could be given anywhere. He could sit in his Oval Office and give the speech, he could have it issued, he could have one of his secretaries read it out. It’s his visit, it’s his physical presence, it is the president of the United States in a mosque that is symbolic. That is the message which is important today.

Obama greets students from Al-Rahmah school during his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore.Baltimore Sun via Getty Images
Obama greets students from Al-Rahmah school during his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore.

What are your thoughts on what was said? Is there anything that stood out to you?

We need to put it in the context of the visit. It’s not a political visit. He’s meeting a range of people to really make a point that, look, these are Americans, they are ordinary like you and me. They’re involved in everyday ordinary activity as in any other community center anywhere in America…. It is a bit late for him to give that kind of message. And in his speech he’s made mention of this rhetoric towards Muslims, and he’s been doing that in different ways over the last couple of years. He did say one or two things a bit more explicitly. His heart wants one thing and his head wants another thing. His heart is going one way, his head is going another way. But here we are seeing a bit more of the heart.

So even the fact that he says to Muslim Americans, “I wish to say thank you” — now that, in the American context, today in 2016, seems almost revolutionary, because we haven’t heard that. We haven’t heard a president or a prominent man say that. He’s been making statements, general statements, that minorities should be given rights. And we don’t do this in America, but here he was explicit. That, in itself, is a huge improvement in this environment.

Normally, politicians turn up to a community and they talk about what applies to that community. But for him to be sitting in a mosque and saying these things for Muslims is significant, because this is Obama applying balm to the wounds. He’s healing the Muslim wounds when he actually says things like, ‘I want to say thank you on behalf of the American people.’ He’s applying balm because they have not heard this before. All they’ve heard is suspicion, abuse, attacks — so this is balm.

“The fact that he says to Muslim Americans ‘I wish to say thank you’… seems almost revolutionary, because we haven’t heard that.”

What did you make of his specific message to young Muslims about identity?

When he talks to the young Muslims… all young Muslims — it’s not just in that particular mosque — are going to be saying: ‘The president spoke to me. The president said I am an American. I am acceptable. I am accepted. I am part of this great country, and I can contribute.’ This is the message they’re taking. There’s a significance because he’s talking directly to the youth. And as we know, the challenge with Islam today is the youth, because a lot of these [people joining extremist groups] are mainly young people, and they are the future.

So we’ve got to — we Muslims and non-Muslims living in the United States or European countries — have to win them over. And so far, the rhetoric of hatred does not win them over. The rhetoric of hatred pushes them away from us. So the fact that he’s coming and reaching out to them and applying this balm means that they suddenly feel that [they] have another attractive alternative to look to.

Muslim-American men from a local mosque pray in front of Trump Tower in New York City, Dec. 20, 2015.Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Muslim-American men from a local mosque pray in front of Trump Tower in New York City, Dec. 20, 2015.

What do you think was the impact of Obama’s willingness to address the more tense aspects of the Muslim-American relationship — like the presence of a perversion of Islam among a small amount of people, and the tricky experience of Muslims with intelligence and security in this country?

A lot of this is happening. It may be Trump saying it, but Obama’s in charge. So Trump will say, ‘Look, it’s not my administration, maybe I wouldn’t be doing this if I was in charge.’ So Obama has to comment on the [Department of Homeland Security], this anti-Muslim rhetoric that feeds into reactions of these officials. And there have been so many incidents of families or individuals being prevented — they’ve got their tickets, they’ve boarded a plane in London and suddenly they’ve been asked to go back, or in America the pilot simply feels uncomfortable  — that’s not a good environment to be a Muslim. He has mentioned these points, but this time he’s more explicit. Even just sitting there, praising Muslims, saying nice things — that’s enough for me in terms of applying the balm. Not enough substance, perhaps, but at least he’s done it. Later, perhaps, but he’s made it. Perhaps it could have come earlier, but better late than never. In the end, he’s given us something before he leaves.

But I think this was a time when he could have said much more, been more definitive… ‘This is a gross injustice that has been done, I will make sure it’s corrected or make sure it’s looked into in every case.’ Something to assure Muslim minorities. But it goes back to the bigger point — he has come with symbolism in mind and has not brought substance, because by definition, [because] he is where he is in the last term, he cannot bring substance. The next president, if he’s so inclined — specifically, if he represents an opposite point of view — is just going to scrap it. For [Obama], at this moment, it’s enough to raise these issues.

The Muslim community, I know, will feel like much more could have happened, much more substance could have been offered to them. But they will be grateful for what they get, because at this moment, they are in a corner. There’s a banquet, and in this banquet, they are not [at] the table. They are getting some crumbs and that is all that they can expect, because in this situation, there are others who will not even give them those crumbs. There are others who say ‘Pack them all in an internment camp and feed them nothing.’ So at least you have someone saying, ‘Here I am, I sympathize with you, these are problems, and we’ll do something about them.’ But he hasn’t said ‘I’m going to solve it, I’m going to completely change everything’…

It’s not Obama’s style. He’s not a JFK or MLK, he’s more cautious — he doesn’t do anything dramatic and implement it, particularly in a mosque. He will also be cautious that anything he says that’s too controversial will be counterproductive because it’s coming from a mosque. You will have right-wing comments tomorrow saying that he had a Muslim Brotherhood agenda, saying he’s encouraging terrorism, so he’s aware that he’ll be getting enough backlash, and he would not want to add to it.

“There’s a banquet, and in this banquet, [Muslims] are not [at] the table. They are getting some crumbs and that is all that they can expect, because in this situation, there are others who will not even give them those crumbs.”

How important is this move for the global Muslim community? How important is it for the global community in general, given the rising Islamophobia, especially when it comes to how to deal with the influx of refugees?

The world knows one figure that leads the country, and that’s the president. So the world is looking at the president sitting in the mosque. Huge symbolism. When the Queen of England or Prince Charles actually visit a mosque or are visited by Muslims, which happens frequently, when they appoint members of the House of Lords who are Muslims, it sends a signal. I’m not saying the problems disappear. There’s still Islamophobia. There’s still terrorism. There’s still challenges. But it is minimized because you have these very significant figures visiting and reaching out. On the other hand, you have countries like France where you do not have this interaction. You do not have the president visiting a mosque or Muslim scholars to look upon. And you do have a marginalized, angry, alienated community ready to explode, and we’re seeing the explosions unfortunately there.

If you take the men of violence, as I call them, they will see this as a ploy — ‘It’s meaningless, he’s offered you nothing, don’t be fooled by his empty gestures.’ Mainstream governments will approve, will applaud and will compliment Obama. I can almost assure you that the Saudi government, the Iranian government or the Pakistani government would be pleased that he’s done this, because it reaffirms for them that they and the United States can be friends. Even in countries like India, which has a pluralist tradition, you have a tradition of heads of state who are not Muslim reaching out to Muslims and other minorities.

So that is an example that you need to present to the world. And America, in its finest traditions, is a pluralist society. If you don’t believe me, go to the University of Virginia and look up the statue of the angel that stands outside the university created by Thomas Jefferson. On that plaque that the angel is holding symbolizing America, it says “religious freedom,” and the year is 1776. The first word is “God,” for Christians. The second word is “Yahweh,” for Jews. The third word is “Allah,” for Muslims. And if this is not enough, the next is the Hindu word for God, “Brahma.”

Here is a Founding Father dreaming of a society where there would be religious pluralism, where people from all over the world can come here, create here, live by the law, live by respect for knowledge, build up this society to a new world. Sometimes that world requires boldness. It requires courage. And it requires, always, faith in humanity. And that is what Obama aspires to. And that is what took him to Baltimore.

As Europe grapples with the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis, various nations are putting restrictions on who can comeAles Beno/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
As Europe grapples with the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis, various nations are putting restrictions on who can come into the country. In some cases these restrictions are based on religion.

What do you hope American Muslims will take away from this? What do you hope global Muslims will take away from this? And what do you hope non-Muslims around the world will take away from this?

Muslims both here in the United States and abroad will respond by saying, ‘It was good it happened.’ I think people abroad, mainstream Muslims, will be maybe more appreciative than Muslims here in the United States, because Muslims here do have a genuine problem. And they want their problems, which have now become almost routine, to be fixed. If you’re a student looking for a job or a Muslim boarding a plane, you will come across some kind of prejudice. Muslims are going to face that, and while they will take away some positives from the speech, they will ask, ‘Is it or is it not going to change [our] lives?’

Muslims abroad will say, ‘It’s good… Islam is a great religion, Obama’s come to a mosque, even he has accepted that Muslims are good people and they should be thanked for their contributions to society.’

Now as far as non-Muslims are concerned, I think the responses abroad will be positive. The responses in the United States will be predictable, which is that the Republicans will say that this is typical of him, this is terrible, and give reasons for why they believe that. And the Democrats will say it’s a very positive thing. We already have Hillary Clinton, we already have [Sen.] Bernie Sanders all taking this position of inclusivity. So the president did something he’s expected to do, and we applaud it.