Obama’s visit to the Baltimore Mosque. Via White House
Amidst the rising global hatred against Muslims, American President Barak Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore. President Obama delivered a speech calling for harmony and religious, but during the same day, a Pew Research Centre study was published, reporting that many Americans think a substantial segment of the U.S. Muslim population is anti-American. This data may prove disappointing to Obama’s supporters who see him as an advocate against bigotry and racism, but as an outsider, a non-American Muslim, I can see why the American president’s gesture has failed to minimize polarization.
The leader of the West’s strongest nation has opted to strip Islam from its centuries-old, colorful diversities and frame it within a monochromatic conservative style—a self-defeating approach from a man who advocated for diversity among weary Americans who wish to shelter their country from the turbulence of the Middle East.
To understand my point, have a look at the White House’s published photos of the visit. Those photos represent neither America nor Islam.
The lack of non-Hijabi women among the attendees, even among the children, is striking. Do all American Muslim women wear Hijab? Certainly not. Many Muslims left their oppressive native societies that enforced strict dress codes in America—the land of freedom. Moreover, in addition to non-Hijabi Muslims, there are many gay and lesbian Muslim Americans too. How about Sufi Muslim, a peaceful mainstream sect that is more tolerant and accommodating than other orthodox sects of Islam? Why has it been ignored?
Why has the American president opted to provide America with a cropped image of Islam?
While conservative America is demonizing Muslims as terrorists, liberal progressive America is courting conservative Islamist Muslims and portraying them as mainstream Muslim Americans. This absurd selectivity is simply baffling. How can a president who fights for freedom alienate those who advocate freedom in Islam?
Non-Islamist Muslims exist in America as well as in their native countries. Iranian Americans, for example, will undoubtedly tell the president tales about oppression, dress code, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Other liberal Muslims fight against segregation, enforcing Hijab upon children. Almost all Muslim mainstream Muslim scholars agree that Hijab for pre-puberty children is not obligatory. The American leadership that fights the Islamic State’s oppression, however, seems tolerant of such indoctrination of children.
As Asra Nomani and Ify Okoye wrote, “President Obama should be aware that on any given day, a woman or girl worshiping in the mosque would be dispatched away from the musallah (prayer hall) where he will stand to speak out against Islamophobia, to the “prayer room for females,” as one worshipper described it.”
I may not agree with all of Asra Nomani’s views, but I share her concerns on enforcing segregation. It is a revolting feature in modern-day orthodox Islam, which does not even exist in Islam’s holiest place of Mecca. Before the recent rise of political Islam, women were allowed to pray in the main hall inside many mosques throughout the Muslim world. I personally had the privilege to pray the al-Asr prayer inside the stunning Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, albeit in the back behind the men. The same practice existed until recently in Bosnia and most the Balkan mosques. In Cairo, women and men separated into groups, but they pray together in Eid prayers.
Courting conservative Islamist Americans will not ease the tension and hatred about Islam in America or in the rest of the world. In fact, the opposite is true. This visit will only entrench the current polarization, because it ignored those who can bridge the gap between Islam and the West. Obama presented to America a badly cropped image of Islam during a time when the wide panoramic view is needed. This was certainly a missed opportunity.