President Obama’s visit to a U.S. mosque on Wednesday was welcomed by members of Minnesota’s Muslim community, who say that anti-Islam sentiment has reached new heights in the current political climate.

“When you have a heated political climate, someone at his level needs to step up and say, ‘This cannot go on,’ ” said Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. “The president said we are Muslims and Americans, and we are part of the fabric of society. That’s a key message.”

While Obama’s mosque visit was labeled “historic” by some, he was not the first U.S. president to set foot in a Muslim house of worship in the U.S., said Odeh Muhawesh, a software company CEO and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas.

“President Bush visited a mosque after September 11,” Muhawesh said, “and President Eisenhower opened a mosque [the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.] in Washington in the 1950s.”

What’s historic now is that anti-Muslim rhetoric is becoming commonplace, he said. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, for example, has repeatedly vowed to monitor or shut down some mosques and ban Muslims from entering the U.S. “If Muslims are allowed to be fair game of hate, it becomes accepted and other groups will follow,” Muhawesh said.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, called Obama’s visit “important and dramatic and emotional.”

Ellison, a Minneapolis Democrat, was an invited guest of the president on Tuesday. He also had joined other Democratic politicians and Minnesota business leaders in signing a full-page ad in Monday’s Star Tribune decrying anti-Islam speech as “un-Minnesotan.”

“They’ve been assaulted and insulted and they’ve been thrown off airplanes,” Ellison said. “To hear the leading elected official in our country say this is not OK is very important.”

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, gave several examples of the hate crimes he sees increasing, including the December firebombing of a Somali restaurant in downtown Grand Forks, N.D., by a Minnesota man.

Obama’s remarks “send a strong signal that we need to push back,” Hussein said.

Adeel Ahmed, who teaches with University of Minnesota Extension, is among those Muslims who wishes the president had made the symbolic visit sooner. Although Obama has condemned anti-Muslim attacks, visiting the Muslim house of worship sends a strong message.

“I thought it was about time,” said Ahmed, “especially during this election climate when the entire Muslim community is being demonized.”

 

Staff writer Allison Sherry contributed to this report.