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Obama To Make His First Visit As President To A U.S. Mosque


President Obama has visited mosques on his trips overseas, but as president he has yet to do so here in America, until today. Obama is going to the Islamic Society of Baltimore - a large complex including a school, community center, clinic and worship space. The White House says the visit aims to show support for America's Muslim community and the principle of religious freedom. On the line with us now is Peter Manseau, author of, "One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History."

Good Morning.

PETER MANSEAU: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, as I've just said, the president has visited a synagogue, churches, but never a mosque. Why not and why now?

MANSEAU: Well, I think that to consider the significance of this visit today, we really need to go back to the very first day of the Obama presidency, which was seven years ago just last month. When Barack Obama delivered his first inaugural address, he went further than any of his predecessors in naming religious diversity as an American ideal. You'll probably recall that he said, we are a nation of Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims and non-believers. It was the kind of hopeful rhetoric that won him the election. But, since then, it would seem to many that we live in a more religiously divided time than ever. And so I think this visit is signaling that he wants to make - he wants to make good on that promise of his inaugural address.

MONTAGNE: Although, is it also about timing? I mean, there have been anti-Muslim - there has been anti-Muslim violence this year, apparently higher than most other years. You know, does it have something to do with a sense that Americans are turning against Muslims?

MANSEAU: Oh, certainly, it has to do entirely with the heightened anti-Islamic rhetoric, especially coming from the Republican primary campaign, in fact. I think that is the signal moment that is really making this happen today, rather than previously.

MONTAGNE: Well, then one would think after seven years, President Obama's approach might've helped. Are you saying that he has not done that much to fight intolerance?

MANSEAU: Oh, he's done an incredible amount. And as I said, he's done more than any of his predecessors. You look at the interreligious activities that have been held at the White House. He's hosted Passover Seders. He's hosted Ramadan Iftar dinners. He's hosted Hindu Diwali celebrations. But it seems to me an indication that, unfortunately, much of the nation might not agree with Obama's broad minded understanding of faith. There are some very vocal elements in this country that are genuinely threatened by it, I think.

MONTAGNE: Well, part of that threat - that people feel threatened has been a continuing accusation that Obama is himself Muslim. Would that be a reason for him to have stayed away from mosques all these years?

MANSEAU: I think that probably has something to do with it, but also keep in mind that he only visited his first synagogue last May, for example - a very interesting visit in which he claimed to be an honorary member of the tribe, meaning the Jewish people, and mentioned that he had learned some Yiddish from Rahm Emanuel. But these visits always happened within a broader context. And so that visit, for example, came at a time when the White House wanted to continue to signal continuing support for the state of Israel. And so yes - and so this visit likewise wants to send this larger message.

MONTAGNE: Well, just lastly and briefly - he's always talked about welcoming all faiths. Is this how the Obama presidency will be remembered?

MANSEAU: I think this is becoming a theme of his last year in office, beginning with his State of the Union address, naming and defending Muslim Americans very explicitly. This seems to me like it's going to be a theme of going into his last year, wanting to secure this part of his legacy, which you mentioned on the very first day he mentioned when he was campaigning for office, and it's obviously personally very important to him.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for joining us.

MANSEAU: My pleasure, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Peter Manseau is the author of, "One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History." And later today on All Things Considered, NPR's Scott Horsley will have more on the president's visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.