By Alexandra Zavis, Shashank Bengali and
February 4, 2016
President Obama's first visit to an
American mosque since taking office predictably drew criticism from his
opponents on the campaign trail and conservative commentators. But what was the
reaction from the world's 1.5 billion Muslims?
For the most part, a collective shrug.
The symbolism of Wednesday's visit did not
go unappreciated, especially in the U.S., where Obama was lauded for taking a
stand against the inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslims and exhorting
Americans not to confuse millions of patriotic citizens with a "radical,
tiny minority" who engage in violence. But many wondered why the president
had waited until his seventh year in office.
President George W. Bush visited a mosque
in Washington within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to reassure
American Muslims and appeal for tolerance.
"Isn't it sad
that Bush went to a mosque right after 9/11 to show support to the Muslim
community?" Maybe it is #TooLateObama!
10:35 AM - 4 Feb
The Council on American-Islamic Relations
and other Muslim groups had been urging Obama to make a similar visit for
years. Obama has visited mosques during official visits abroad, including in
Egypt and Indonesia. But the president's aides feared such a visit in the U.S.
would feed the rumors -- inaccurate but persistent-- that Obama is a Muslim.
"Maybe he feels comfortable
there," Republican front-runner Donald Trump said of Obama's visit on Fox
News, a loaded comment from someone who has appeared to question Obama's
Christian faith as well as his birthplace.
Obama's visit also drew criticism from Sen.
Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who accused the president at a town hall in New Hampshire
of "always pitting people against each other. Always."
However, Obama was received warmly at the
Islamic Society of Baltimore, where he noted that Jefferson's opponents
"tried to stir things by suggesting he was a Muslim, so I was not the
first. I'm in good company."
Zainab Chaudry, the council's outreach
manager in Maryland, said the visit was "a significant step in the right
direction and will hopefully encourage our nation's political and religious
leaders to join him in pushing back against rising Islamophobia."
The visit also generated some
self-deprecating humor, including this tweet from the author, lawyer and
Harvard University scholar Qasim Rashid:
Qasim Rashid, Esq. @MuslimIQ
I heard @POTUS
wants to make his landmark address at a mosque a truly authentic American
Muslim experience, so he's arriving an hour late.
9:54 PM - 3 Feb
Outside the U.S., however, the speech had
Many Muslims said there was a disparity
between Obama's rhetoric and his administration's policies in the Middle East
and South Asia, which they believe have done little to end the wars in Syria,
Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
"As words, they sound beautiful but
[U.S.] actions are as ugly as they have been," said Mohammad Modaser, a
29-year-old Kabul resident who works for the Afghan Education Ministry.
"A lot of Muslims were hopeful when he
first took office for better days in the Middle East and Islamic world,"
Modaser said. "But nothing actually changed. The wars in Palestine, Syria,
Iraq and Afghanistan got worse every day. Peace in Afghanistan is still a myth.
Muslims' treatment particularly in the U.S. -- like second-class citizens --
has not changed."
Emran Feroz, an Afghan journalist who
runs Drone Memorial, a website that tracks deaths from drone strikes, tweeted:
While Obama is
speaking in a mosque, his drones are still killing people like today in
Afghanistan, where at least 22 have been murdered.
12:34 AM - 4 Feb
Feroz was apparently referring to U.S.
airstrikes in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan on Monday that local
officials said killed more than two dozen people and destroyed a radio station
belonging to members of Islamic State, the militant organization based in Iraq
and Syria. U.S. officials have confirmed launching two airstrikes but did not
specify the targets.
In the Middle East, media outlets devoted
little, if any, coverage to Obama's speech, which took place late in the night
"I didn't even know Obama was visiting
a mosque yesterday," said Marwan Saied, 47, a grocer in the Egyptian
"I personally like Obama, he
continued. But I don't think he did anything dramatic that we as Muslims can
see as a major change in U.S. policy toward Muslims and the Middle East. People
are still suffering in Palestine, Iraq and Libya, and many people that I
personally know are still partly blaming America for that."
In Iran, only the hard-line Fars news
agency reported on the visit. The brief article took issue with Obama for
defending Jews, even while visiting a mosque at a time when Islamophobia has
reached a climax in the U.S.
The news agency appeared to be referring to
a section in the speech in which Obama noted that anti-Semitism in this country
has a sad and long history. The president also said, if we're serious about
freedom of religion -- and I'm speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain
the majority in this country -- we have to understand an attack on one faith is
an attack on all our faiths."
The response to his remarks was very
different in 2009, when Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo University
and promised a new beginning in relations with the United States. That speech
was broadcast live across the region and was still being discussed weeks later.
Ali Abunimah @AliAbunimah
Obama could do
much more for Muslims by stopping arms to Saudi regime being used to murder
people in Yemen. #MosqueVisit
12:07 AM - 4 Feb
These days, people are more preoccupied
with issues closer to home, said Mustafa Ellabbad, director of Al Sharq Centre
for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"We have the civil war in Syria and
unrest in Yemen, Libya and Iraq. We have terrorists’ threats in almost every
Middle Eastern country and Daesh in Syria and Iraq," he said, using the
Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "All of these factors are contributing
to the current situation, where people are more consumed with their domestic
events rather than U.S. politics."
Although the U.S. is still considered a
major force, it is no longer viewed as the only significant foreign player in
the Middle East. Russia in particular has provided critical military backing to
Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. has been more preoccupied with
fighting Islamic State than removing Assad from power.
Obama is also nearing the end of his term,
and attention is turning to who might succeed him. Many in the Middle East are
concerned about Trump's call for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering
the United States, and opposition from other Republican candidates to admitting
refugees from Syria's civil war out of fear that they could include people with
ties to extremist groups.
"Nonetheless, yesterday's speech still
gives a very positive message to millions of people in the Middle East,"
Ellabbad said. "It tells them that the U.S. is not just Trump and
right-wing Republicans. It shows people here that there are still good
politicians in the U.S. who are using the language of sense and politics over
the language of extremism."
Zana | زينة @zanaWza3tar
It's crazy how
people take something great & turn around to complain about it taking
"this long to happen". It's NOT #TooLateObama.
8:50 AM - 4 Feb
Qibla Ayaz, a former dean of Islamic and Oriental
Studies at the University of Peshawar, in Pakistan, said Obama's visit would
help dispel the impression that conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East
are a war between Christianity and Islam.
"President Obama's statement will not
only give confidence to the Muslim community in America but will also promote
harmony among various faiths, especially Islam, Christianity and Judaism across
the world," Ayaz said.
The Muslim Council of Britain used the
occasion to encourage fellow Britons to visit local mosques on Sunday, which it
is promoting as #VisitMyMosque Day.
More than 80 British mosques are taking
part in the event, which aims to provide a platform for Muslims to reach out to
their neighbours and explain their faith at a time of tension between religious
In India, where many minority Muslims have
expressed concern over policies that they say favour the Hindu majority, some
commentators wondered whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi should follow
Kumar Shakti Shekhar, a journalist, wrote
on the Daily O website that Muslims in India have felt slighted by the
governing Bharatiya Janata Party's support for a ban on beef in some states,
and comments by some party leaders that have been perceived to be anti-Muslim.
"In such circumstances, it is well in
the interest of the nation that Modi emulates Obama and visits a mosque in
India," Shekhar wrote, noting that Modi, like Obama, previously visited a
Underscoring the political costs
confronting both Modi and Obama, however, Shekhar wrote that the Indian leader
should not make such a visit because it could end up alienating his
conservative Hindu base.
Special correspondent Hassan reported from Cairo and Times staff writers
Zavis and Bengali from Los Angeles and Kolhapur, India, respectively. Special
correspondents Christina Boyle in London, Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar and Ali M.
Latifi in Kabul contributed to this report.