President Barack Obama's visit to a Baltimore-area mosque on Wednesday is intended as a deliberate rebuke to Republican presidential candidates who, White House aides say, have stoked Islamophobia and bigotry in the aftermath of Islamic State-inspired terror attacks across the world.
Muslim leaders say that the trip, Obama's first to a mosque on U.S. soil, represents an important symbolic gesture of solidarity at a time when incidents of anti-Muslim prejudice are on the rise. But the White House also sees the visit as an opportunity to draw a sharp leadership contrast with a Republican field that has demonstrated what Obama's aides consider an alarming and offensive eagerness to marginalize Muslim Americans.
"It has been a transparent strategy on the part of Republicans to play on people's anxieties, to target religious minorities, to advance their political ambition," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
Businessman Donald Trump, who led Republican primary polls for much of the campaign, has proposed a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration in response to terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 and San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said the U.S. should focus on admitting refugees from Syria who could prove they were Christian. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the victor in Monday's Iowa caucuses, has said he "understood" Trump's proposal but favored his own ban on refugee immigration from countries where Islamic State and al-Qaida control territory.
Cruz and other Republicans have criticized Obama for "political correctness" in refusing to describe groups such as Islamic State as "radical Islamic terrorists."
Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's former senior adviser, said in an email that the president's visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore "sends a powerful signal that the Islamophobia coming out of the Republican primary is a minority, not majority, opinion in this country."
"While this has been a strain of thinking in the country since 9/11, it hasn't been until this year that major mainstream political figures started publicly espousing anti-Muslim views," Pfeiffer said.
Islamic leaders say Obama's visit is welcome and necessary. Several U.S. mosques were the target of arson attacks following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. High-profile incidents including the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, 14, a Texas teen detained after a homemade clock he brought to school was mistaken for a bomb, have only deepened their concern that anti- Islamic sentiment is on the rise.
Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal and educational advocacy group based in Oakland, California, said she pushed for Obama to visit a mosque during a December meeting with top White House officials, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Khera's organization has tracked at least 70 anti-Muslim hate crimes since Paris, she said.
"I think he recognizes how dangerous it's gotten and frankly how embarrassing it's gotten, the kind of rhetoric we've seen," Khera, a former Senate Democratic aide, said in an interview.
Taha Tawil, an Iowa imam who leads the Mother Mosque, the first permanent U.S. structure built specifically as a mosque, said Muslims "are scared" and that Muslim children suffer harassment in schools. Tawil invited Trump to visit his mosque after his call for a ban on Muslim immigration.
"Whoever is feeding this fear in the hearts of the public needs to stop," Tawil said. "I think a visit of the president to a mosque -- that gives a boost to the Muslim community, to bring them back to life, show that they still are citizens of the country. Trump and others try to disunite us."
Obama's denunciations of anti-Muslim rhetoric began in earnest when the House moved in November to pass a bill to suspend the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S. Republicans, joined by some Democrats, said a pause would allow the government to improve screening of refugee applicants for people with links to terror groups. The White House said the refugee program was designed to help people left most vulnerable by regional conflicts, and that those admitted underwent the most rigorous screening of any travelers visiting the U.S.
The president's efforts have intensified in recent weeks, including explicit criticism in January's State of the Union address.
"When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn't make us safer. That's not telling it like it is," Obama said. "It's just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country."
He again denounced religious bigotry during an event at the Israeli embassy and in remarks to House Democrats last week and during a Dec. 9 visit to Capitol Hill to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. Wednesday's mosque visit will amplify his message.
Obama also enjoys considerably more political leeway in his final year in office than earlier in his term. Visiting a mosque before his 2012 re-election would have been almost unthinkable, at a time when Obama was forced to combat inaccurate stories that he was secretly a Muslim and wasn't born in the United States.
In fact, a CNN/ORC International poll conducted in September found that 29 percent of Americans still believe Obama is a Muslim. Only about four in ten correctly identified his faith as Protestant.
The president has repeatedly acknowledged less restraint as his second term draws to a close, and aides often cite his joke at last year's White House Correspondents Dinner that he maintains a "rhymes-with-bucket list."
By visiting a mosque, Obama may also muscle his way back into a news cycle now dominated by people competing to succeed him in office. In addition to the unique nature of the event, the mosque Obama will visit was prominently featured in the first season of the popular "Serial" podcast. Adnan Syed, the teenager who is serving life plus 30 years for the killing in 1999 of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, attended the mosque with his parents.
"Whatever the intention behind it, I still commend him," Tawil said of Obama's visit. "And whoever comes after him should be doing the same sort of thing."