President Barack Obama’s first visit to a U.S. mosque during his presidency comes at a critical moment amid the rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry that has infected American political discourse. Muslims in America have been the targets of vile rhetoric, discriminatory policy proposals, repeated threats, and acts of violence in the months since the attacks in Paris late last year. While this type of religious scapegoating is not new in the United States, its strength in the second decade of 21st century is deeply concerning—especially because anti-Muslim bigotry plays right into the hands of the nation’s terrorist enemies. President Obama is right to visit this mosque, and this decision demonstrates his resolve to reject the scapegoating of minority groups and to highlight the strength of American pluralism and tolerance.
President George W. Bush visited a mosque in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks to show solidarity with Muslims and isolate Al Qaeda from the Muslim world. It is high time that President Obama does the same. Obama will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore, or ISB, just a week after delivering a powerful speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day in which he referenced past and present anti-Semitism, saying that “an attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths.” Since the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, attacked Paris last November, assaults on the Muslim faith have become all too common. Even the ISB, which has been described as an “average Joe mosque,” has needed additional security from local police because of repeated threats of violence, with one warning of “spill[ing] Muslim blood.”
Right on cue after the announcement of the president’s visit, conservatives quickly turned to smear tactics, citing decades-old and debunked claims in an attempt to link the ISB to terrorist or extremist groups. Fox News warned of its “extremist ties.” The Daily Caller claimed it has “deep ties to extremist elements.” Breitbart cautioned of “ties to Al Qaeda.” And The Washington Times said it has “ties to radical Islamic groups.” These charges amount to nothing more than guilt by association to a decade-old prosecution that was several steps removed from ISB and a former ISB employee who was a member of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s.
This is exactly the kind of reaction that ISIS wants and needs. ISIS’s explicit strategy is to use indiscriminate and horrific violence to terrorize its opponents, motivate its supporters, and provoke a backlash against Muslims in the West in order to drive them toward ISIS. Violence and discrimination against Muslims in the West validates the worldview ISIS is trying to sell. So do attempts to portray an “average Joe mosque” as having “deep ties to extremist elements.” There is a strange and troubling convergence of worldviews between ISIS and anti-Muslim bigots in the United States.
Fear about the rise of ISIS and the threat of terrorist attacks in the United States is entirely understandable. It is reckless and dangerous, however, to exploit that anxiety for political gain and push an unnerved society toward hatred and prejudice. President Obama spoke eloquently just last week of the heroic efforts of an American prisoner of war who stood up to the Nazis in order to protect his Jewish-American fellow prisoners. It is fitting that he is quickly following with a visit to the ISB. Anti-Muslim bigotry is just as deplorable as anti-Semitism, and unless we stop this descent into Islamophobia right now, it could be just as dangerous.
Ken Gude is a Senior Fellow with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress.