Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds.

President Obama's visit to a mosque: long overdue -- and vital

In Malaysia, President Barack Obama (second from left) receives a tour of the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, 2014. Obama paid homage to Malaysia's moderate brand of Islam and visited the mosque during an Asian trip.

Story highlights

  • Haroon Moghul says the presidential visit can be a wake-up call for those mosques that aren't as welcoming as they should be
  • Moghul: Donald Trump says he'd consider shutting down mosques, but fact is they are a positive force in America

Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author, essayist and public speaker. Follow him @hsmoghul. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It's not like American Presidents haven't been to mosques before. George W. Bush not only went to one shortly after the September 11 attacks, but he used his platform to tell America that Islam was "a religion of peace." But while Barack Obama has been to mosques, and of course spent part of his childhood in a Muslim-majority country, he's never visited an American mosque.

    Haroon Moghul
    It certainly took you long enough, Mr. President.
    In recent years, we've discovered that the NYPD had been monitoring Muslim communities across the tri-state area, which was not just overbearing, and unconstitutional, but a poor use of limited resources. Despite years of spying, do you know how many investigations resulted? Less than zero.
    There weren't even any leads. That's not to say terrorists haven't been part of mosque congregations, or that some mosques have preached or encouraged violence and extremism. It's that these were, firstly, outliers, and secondly, that Muslim community institutions have been pushing back with ever more success.
    So while politicians like Donald Trump make it seem like mosques are factories for violent fundamentalists, and commentators like Ayaan Hirsi Ali tweet that "Islam pure taken to its logical conclusion leads to mass murder," nothing could be further from the truth on the ground.

    The facts about mosques

    The word "mosque" comes to us from a corruption of the Arabic "masjid," which just means a place where you bow your head — to God. People might be surprised to know that the first mosques in America date back to the first slaves, many of whom were Muslim, but had to practice Islam in secret. Many historians believe Polish and Lithuanian Muslims built New York's first mosque. But the facts about mosques that are most pertinent to our national conversation are the ones most Republican candidates refuse to discuss.
    Not only does extremist recruitment increasingly happen outside and away from mosques, but jihadists work hard to prevent potential terrorists — whom they usually reach through social media — from even going to mosques, where Muslims might report them or just disabuse them of their delusional ideas. Muslim communities are working hard to make all mosques no-go zones for extremism.
    I speak from experience.
    This past Friday, I traveled to Houston, Texas, on the invitation of a dynamic Muslim institution, the Risala Foundation. I joined a panel seated at the head of a diverse congregation, filling up much of a prominent local mosque, for a very honest and searching conversation about ISIS and extremism. We talked about where ISIS came from, how to fight the movement (and related forms of extremism) and, perhaps most importantly for the parents in the room, how to keep their children safe from the very small, but very devastating, risk, that they'll be targeted online.
    The local French consul-general even dropped by to share a message — much like President Bush's, from years ago — that though his country was at war with extremism, it was not at war with Islam. His presence might be surprising to you, too. But it shouldn't be.
    As research by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (where I'm a Fellow) has found, mosques are engines for civic activism.
    Mosques bear almost no resemblance to the institutions Donald Trump says he would consider shutting down: multiple academic studies show mosque attendance correlates positively with higher levels of civic engagement, volunteerism, even better mental health outcomes.
    I wish more people knew this. But I know most people have their image of Islam and Muslims formed by politicians and talking heads who have committed to terrifying us instead of reassuring us.

    Mosques deserve protections in America

    Just a few days ago, Ben Carson declared that Islam was not a religion, but "a life organization system" — which sounds like something you might pick up at the Container Store. What he really meant was that Islam doesn't deserve the protections our democracy accords other religions, because Islam isn't a religion.
    So of course I support President Obama's planned visit Wednesday to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, not least because it challenges the idea that these are institutions that don't belong in America. But I must admit to a hidden agenda.
    In recent years, I've hit some 33 states, mostly to visit Muslim communities and congregations — from West Virginia to Alaska, eastern Washington to central Florida. While I've found the number of spiritually fulfilling, diverse and dynamic mosques across our country are increasing, many are still not where they need to be, let alone where they could be. Many Muslims are, you see, "unmosqued."
    They've been alienated from what should be their religious institutions, and driven to "third spaces" or entirely opted out. I understand them: Though I live in New York, which has the biggest Muslim population of any city in the United States, I haven't yet found a mosque that I would be able to attend beyond the obligatory Friday prayers, or special services in Ramadan.
    Too many mosques are still cults of personality, dominated by one person or at most a handful. There's little turnover on many boards, not much outreach to the wider community, underinvestment in education and overemphasis on a religious discourse that alienates instead of empowers. I still come across mosques that relegate women to parts of the building that are clearly afterthoughts, if not incipient human rights violations.
    Half the congregation is consigned to basements, walled-off rooms with no access to speakers or preachers, or relegated to distant and dark upstairs corners. I am afraid, though, that some of us might get used to this kind of discrimination, and become resigned to it. Until and unless, of course, you have a guest. Maybe an important guest. Maybe the most powerful person in the world.
    The fact of engaging with the wider world might help give many Muslim communities the push they need to make changes that are long overdue. So while I appreciate President Obama's visit, even while I wonder why it took him till nearly the end of his term to make it, I hope he'll be the first of many visitors, and that we'll be forced to up our game to accommodate our guests.
    It's not very easy to convince people to visit a mosque, of course. But it's going to be even harder, and even more important, to make sure they'll want to come back.