Reflections on Obama’s Mosque Visit

Many have praised President Obama’s recent visit to a Baltimore mosque and affiliated school. Others have been critical, but it is important to counter a rhetoric that is increasingly casting shadows upon fellow American citizens.

But here are two Western Arab voices that express a little concern. The first is a UK-based Muslim, Nervana Mahmoud. She cites official White House photos that present a ‘cropped’ picture of American Islam.

Obama Mosque Visit
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The leader of the West’s strongest nation has opted to strip Islam from its centuries-old, colorful diversities and frame it within a monochromatic conservative style—a self-defeating approach from a man who advocated for diversity among weary Americans who wish to shelter their country from the turbulence of the Middle East. … The lack of non-Hijabi women among the attendees, even among the children, is striking.

Nervana counts herself a liberal Muslim, and wishes this sector had been highlighted. She is confused why a progressive American politician would choose such a mosque for the spotlight.

Non-Islamist Muslims exist in America as well as in their native countries. Iranian Americans, for example, will undoubtedly tell the president tales about oppression, dress code, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Other liberal Muslims fight against segregation, enforcing Hijab upon children.

Almost all mainstream Muslim scholars agree that Hijab for pre-puberty children is not obligatory. The American leadership that fights the Islamic State’s oppression, however, seems tolerant of such indoctrination of children.

Coptic-American Maged Atiya suggests that no matter the mosque the venue would have been criticized as unrepresentative. But he is disappointed that such a cerebral president offered such an empty speech.

It is heavy on optimism, on declarations of belief in liberal values and tolerance, and on deep faith that fundamental forces will force a happy outcome. In short, that we are destined by the arc of history to a fair, just and tolerant outcome in any struggle.

The trouble with that view is that it offers no guidance to short-term policy that will actually lead to such outcomes in the long run.

… The Baltimore speech does American Muslims injustice by lack of acknowledgement of real barriers that stand between their desire to conform to a conservative version of their faith and yet integrate effectively into American society.

He laments Obama’s missed opportunity to really tackle this issue with substance. If so, he could have addressed the core competing values.

There are major differences between the ethos of conservative Islam with its backward glances and emphasis on community sovereignty and the liberalizing trend of American society with its emphasis on the liberation and autonomy of the individual.

Glossing over these differences leaves all exposed when the conflicts inevitably come to the surface. Bigots among American non-Muslims will insist that Muslims can never be “full Americans”, while bigots among American Muslims will insist that such differences are merely manifestations of irrational hatred of Islam. This is a disservice to any effective understanding and outreach between faiths.

I am sympathetic to both viewpoints, but also willing to propose an explanation.

Whether the choice to not wear hijab or sport a long beard and traditional clothing comes from conviction, compromise, or apathy, many of these Muslims mix easily into Western life. They may or may not believe fully the tenets of Islam, may or may not pray at home or the mosque. But in the panoply of American diversity they look more or less like everyone else, and thus, I imagine, draw neither the ire nor support of culture warriors.

Perhaps Obama chose to highlight such a mosque precisely because it draws such a visual image. You, too, are welcome in America. The vitriol of much political discourse targets you, and must be spoken against. Your clothing choices reflect your faith, and for this there is freedom. We must defend it vigilantly, and publicly.

If this is a sentiment behind Obama’s choice, it may also illumine his speech. The presidency is often more a bully pulpit than a university lectern. As hard as some are hitting Muslims these days, the force of rhetoric must be returned. Where fear and suspicion are preached, let principles and idealism respond.

But the criticism of both authors is fair. The complexity of this issue must be honored, and Muslims come in a million stripes.

But they also come as individual citizens. All but the tiniest minority deserve the full scope of American freedoms. American political leadership should do justice to both these realities.