• History

Here’s the First Time a U.S. President Visited an American Mosque

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As President Obama visits the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday, he sets a milestone for his presidency: it’s his first presidential visit to a U.S. mosque. But he’s far from the first president to do so.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower is believed to hold that distinction. According to the State Department, “Eisenhower gave the first known speech by a U.S. president at an American mosque when the exquisitely designed Islamic Center of Washington was dedicated in 1957.” He and his wife Mamie got attention for respectfully removing their shoes on entering. As TIME wrote, “Grey cotton slippers had been prepared to slip over his shoes, but Ike decided to go all the way, shed his new black oxfords before he put on the slippers; Mamie took off her white pumps and stood in her nylons.” The president emphasized the importance of religious freedom in his remarks:

I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience.

This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.

It wasn’t the last encounter between the U.S. presidency and the Islamic Center of Washington: in 2001, six days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush visited the mosque himself and gave an address in which he famously said “Islam is peace”:

Like the good folks standing with me, the American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday’s attacks. And so were Muslims all across the world. Both Americans and Muslim friends and citizens, tax-paying citizens, and Muslims in nations were just appalled and could not believe what we saw on our TV screens …

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.

When Obama makes his own visit to “affirm our conviction in the principle of religious liberty,” as his press secretary said, he will add his contribution to this particular chapter of religious tolerance in America.

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