Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: America, driven by fear, looks for someone to erase. In 2015, The Council on American–Islamic Relations reported the number of incidents targeting mosques in America reached a record, with 17 happening in November alone, all but two occurring in the wake of the attacks in Paris.
Barack Obama is visiting an American mosque Wednesday, the Islamic Society of Baltimore, for the first time in his presidency. The purpose of the visit, it seems, is an attempt to stem the tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has hit a fever pitch during this election cycle, specifically after the Paris attacks. This move is reminiscent of 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when George W. Bush went to a mosque to show Americans that Islam is, quote, “not the face of terror.”
The mosque, like all places of worship, is also a political battleground, depending on what the battle is. The battle today is the same as it has been for over a decade now: Muslims, asking to be seen as human in America, or, at the very least, asking to live a life that is not saddled with the fear of others.
Though I went to the mosque regularly as a child and young adult, it was in the pre-9/11 America. I do not know what it is to walk into a holy place and fear for my life. I don’t know what it is to have to walk past white men in military gear with assault rifles, just to say my daily prayer. The mosque was never an unsafe place for me as a Muslim child, but history says that those who want you gone will come for where you pray first. There will be bombs in mosques and black churches on fire in the south.
This is how the machinery of American fear works. Even if the fear isn’t logical, there has to be someone on the receiving end of the violence that grows out of it. A presidential candidate calls for a “shutdown” of Muslims in the U.S., and the party he belongs to throws up their hands in disgust, some talk around supporting this “shutdown,” but no one names the bigot a bigot.
I don’t wish to downplay President Obama’s visit to an American mosque. It is meaningful, if not overdue. There have been calls for him to do this made by Islamic leaders for years, becoming more aggressive in recent months. This tone of anti-Muslim rhetoric was present before Obama took office, and has been present, at various pitches, during his entire time in office. The President has, at times, especially during the start of his tenure, addressed this. In his 2009 inaugural speech, he promised the Muslim world “a new way forward” based on “mutual respect.” He reiterated this during a speech in Cairo that same year, quoting from the Quran, and saying that “America and Islam are not in competition.”
Despite these intentions, the Obama administration has continued the relentless drone strikes that began under the Bush administration, with 371 drone strikes in Pakistan alone since 2008. Despite Obama’s words about America and Islam not being in competition, this is indicative of an American culture that places the value of Muslim lives below American lives, regardless of whether or not the Muslims in question are American. The holes have been in the foundation, and the water has been spilling through for years. Now, the President wades into a flood, nearly at his neck, and tries to teach a whole country to swim.
People have a hard time confronting this reality: no one who hated Muslims yesterday will hate Muslims any less because President Obama is going to spend time in a mosque, meeting with American Muslim leaders and thinkers. There is too much to be gained from our fear to let it be torn from us so easily. It is the same fear that leads us, even under this Presidency, to be dismissive and oppressively violent to Muslim countries overseas.
There is another side of this, though. Because I was a Muslim youth, I often think first of the Muslim youth. The ones who are targeted at school, or on the playground. I imagine this gesture more for them than anyone else. To see the leader of America walking unafraid into a place where you worship is a reminder that you are not to be feared. In a political climate where half of the GOP voters in Iowa don’t think Islam should be legal in the U.S., every small permission to live a little bit louder helps.
I can’t help but wonder, then, if the target audience has always been wrong. We can’t push our backs against the door of violent Islamophobia now. I fear the tide has come on too strong by now, and the idea that a single sweeping motion will turn the ship in a new direction must be abandoned. President Obama visiting an American mosque is an important and respectable step that I believe the country needs to see. But it loses some power if he walks out of that mosque without a deeper understanding of how he, and whoever takes office after him, can better serve Muslims in this country by how our leaders speak about them, present them to the public, and most importantly, aggressively advocate for them in the face of what seem to be incredible odds.
Otherwise, here’s the joke: the president walks into a mosque so that his country stops using their fear as an excuse for violence. The punchline is, when he walks out, there are still men with guns. There are still Muslims who are afraid to pray.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet and writer from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, is forthcoming from Button Poetry in winter 2016.