For many in American Muslims, President Obama’s visit to a mosque Thursday has been a long time coming.
In the final year of his presidency and at a time when anti-Islamic sentiment seems to have reached new heights, Obama will sit down with members of the Muslim community in Maryland for an open discussion.
The President will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday, marking his first trip to a mosque as President. At the mosque and sprawling community center, located about 45 miles outside Washington in Baltimore County, the President will “affirm our conviction in the principle of religious liberty,” according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“Law-abiding Americans should be able to worship God in the way that they see fit, consistent with their religious heritage and traditions in a way that doesn’t subject them to either interference from the government or, frankly, divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail,” Earnest said Tuesday.
The proliferation of terrorists from ISIS, the attacks in Paris and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., have left the world on edge. That anxiety has led to fear and, in some cases, hatred and violence directed toward the Muslim community. “We’ve seen threats all over the country to mosques, we’ve seen shooting at mosques, vandalism threats and assaults targeting Muslims nationwide,” Ibrahim Hooper, a national spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told TIME in December.
When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and other GOP candidates introduced proposals to either limit or halt the admission of refugees from majority-Muslim countries and Syria, Obama very quickly found himself having to repeatedly defend the protection of refugees and the right of Muslims to worship freely in America.
“Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination,” Obama said in his Oval Office address to the nation on the strategy against ISIS.
During remarks at a naturalization ceremony in Washington, the President said all Americans “must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all of its forms — whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farmworker or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper.” And in his 2016 State of the Union address, the President said Americans have a responsibility to “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding what makes us strong.”
The President will have an opportunity to relay that message to community members directly on Wednesday when he meets with about a dozen leaders before his public remarks. He’ll seek to reinforce, too, that his Administration doesn’t simply consider Muslim Americans through a national-security lens, but through the important role the community plays in American society. He’ll also have an opportunity to hear directly from leaders in the community about what issues are impacting them and what their concerns are.
Given the political climate today, and the reports that anti-Muslim activity is on the rise across the U.S., there’s likely a lot on Muslims’ minds.
In fact, the Islamic Society of Baltimore, where Obama will visit, was the subject of threats last year. In May, CBS Baltimore reported someone called the mosque and threatened to “spill Muslim blood.” Zainab Chaudry, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ outreach manager in Maryland, says a building on the property of another mosque nearby was firebombed last fall. Though Chaudry says the firebombing is not believed to have been a hate crime, it all contributes to the fear and uncertainty felt by many Muslims in that community.
“I’ve had many parents call me and tell me that they’re scared for their children’s safety when they are in school or away from them because they don’t know what kind of incidents they’re going to be subjected to,” Chaudry says.
The roundtable could also provide leaders within the Muslim community to express their concern about the federal government’s initiatives on countering violent extremism. Advocates within the Muslim community have said the initiatives target them, and Chaudry says she is hopeful the opportunity will arise to discuss this and other policies that alienate segments of the Muslim community.
“They may be well intentioned, but the way that they are framed in some cases helps to reinforce that sense of fear towards Muslims and Islam,” she says.
Overall, Chaudry tells TIME that members of the community are looking forward to an opportunity to engage with the President and hopefully send a broader message to those spewing hateful rhetoric.
“This election has been one of most, if not the most, Islamophobic in its tone,” she said. “We’re hoping that this will send a strong message to, specifically candidates who are taking public office, but anyone who has a platform. And encourages them to speak more responsibly.”