By Khaled A Beydoun
04 Feb 2016
On Wednesday, February 3, the United States President Barack Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Seven years into his administration, and during the twilight of his final term, the visit will mark his first presidential stop at an American mosque.
The visit drew as much ire as it did praise from Muslim Americans. “Why so long?” many reflected, particularly in light of Muslim Americans voting for Obama at a whopping 85 percent margin during his second campaign.
Furthermore, why now, others wondered, contemplating what prevailing circumstances or state interests helped to deliver a presidential visit to a US mosque. A space that, within an ever more divided American imagination, is perceived as a training ground for extremism as often as it is thought of a place of worship.
Since delivering his historic Cairo speech at Al-Azhar in June 2009, Obama’s relationship with Islam, and Islamophobia, has been complex.
A victim of Islamophobia himself, Obama manoeuvred around US mosques for seven years to dispel the myth that he wasn’t a covert Muslim. Yet, while the decision to avoid US mosques was a calculated strategy to deflect the Islamophobia directed his way, his long-anticipated visit witnessed Obama pivot to the other side of that dynamic: seeking to advance counter terror policies targeting “home-grown Muslim radicalisation”.
Victim of Islamophobia
As demonstrated before and during his speech in Baltimore, Obama understands the roots of Muslim bigotry, recognises its effects on Muslim Americans and, as a victim of Islamophobia himself, can empathise with its injuries. Therefore, steering clear from American mosques for seven years was not driven by explicit Islamophobia.
Obama’s commitment to counter-radicalisation policing, and aim of enlisting Muslim Americans as intermediaries and informants, particularly in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino attacks, is the driving force behind his first visit to a US mosque.
But rather, by fear of the personal cost that interfacing with Muslim Americans, on their terrain, would have on his re-election prospects. And beyond that, by the political damage that stepping into a mosque would cause during the rising tide of anti-Muslim backlash and rhetorical venom from Republican presidential nominees.
For the seven years leading up to the Baltimore visit, dodging allegations that he was an “undercover” Muslim included dodging requests to make an official US mosque visit. While rebuffing mosque invitation after invitation, Obama delivered notable addresses in several American churches. And just last May, he visited a Washington DC synagogue.
Between being profiled as a “Muslim” by the likes of Donald Trump and extending the covert “war on terror” both globally and against the US’ eight million Muslim citizens domestically, Obama’s long-awaited stop at an American mosque may be reason for greater concern than his decision to avoid them.
While addressing the global Muslim community at Al-Azhar, Obama said: “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
By challenging the “clash of civilisations” rhetoric and policies advanced by the Bush Administration, Obama mended the deep wounds it inflicted on Muslims in the US and abroad. Following his Cairo speech, Obama was lauded by Muslims and Muslim Americans.
However, much like with the Cairo speech, the rift between the rhetoric about Muslim Americans he used and the policies employed against them is wide. And, with the expansion of counter-radicalisation policing, growing wider.
With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Obama carried forward counter terror policies specifically targeting Muslim residents and citizens. Counter-radicalisation policing, the Obama administration’s cornerstone counter terror programme, is built upon the “ideological competition” and “civilisational conflict” he disavowed seven years ago in Cairo.
Radicalisation “suggests that the path from Muslim to terrorist is a predictable one produced by or correlated with religious and political cultures of Muslim communities.
Obama’s commitment to counter-radicalisation policing, and aim of enlisting Muslim Americans as intermediaries and informants, particularly in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, is the driving force behind his first visit to a US mosque.
Already piloted in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, the Department of Homeland security is bent on launching hard counter-radicalisation programmes in additional cities. Particularly cities with large and concentrated Muslim American populations.
This was foreshadowed by his presidential address in the immediate wake of the San Bernardino shootings, when he said: “And we are cooperating with… Muslim communities here at home – to counter the vicious ideology that ISIL promotes online.” He echoed this again in Baltimore: “It’s why we will continue to partner with Muslim American communities – not just to help you protect against extremist threats, but to expand healthcare and education and opportunity – because that’s the best way to build strong, resilient communities.”
Brilliantly, Obama’s most explicit mention of counter-radicalisation was tied to healthcare, education, and work opportunity, which was no coincidence, but intended to frame the controversial counter terror programme as vital to the benefit of American communities, and specifically, Muslim American communities.
Far from Cairo
Obama’s long awaited mosque visit, followed by a speech that mixed “Assalam u Alaikums” and “Sabahs” with laudatory “normalising” rhetoric, is a symbolic nod to Muslim Americans at large. The pull of Obama’s rhetoric, so meticulously crafted and masterfully delivered, pulls Muslim Americans away from focusing on the mission of his cornerstone counter terror programme and counter-radicalisation policing.
Unlike the historic Cairo speech, delivered in one of Islam’s most hallowed spaces, Obama’s Baltimore speech was not motivated by American and Muslim reconciliation but, in direct contrast, to his administration’s deepening commitment to counter Muslim radicalisation.
This is how it will be remembered. Particularly after the seductive pull of his rhetoric is gradually drowned out by the immediate, expanding and collateral effects of counter-radicalisation policing.
Coming to a mosque near you.
Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.