- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

President Obama’s first visit to an American mosque Wednesday comes as U.S. Muslims are increasingly concerned about anti-Islamic sentiment turning violent.

Since Islamist terror attacks were carried out late last year in Paris and San Bernardino, California, advocacy groups have warned of an uptick in harassment and attacks on Muslims across the U.S. — with incidents ranging from the throwing a severed pig’s head at a Philadelphia mosque to the beating of a Muslim convenience store owner in Queens.

In the 10 weeks since the deadly attacks in Paris, the San Francisco-based group Muslim Advocates has tracked nearly 70 incidents of violence, threats or attacks targeted at Muslims that they think could be prosecuted as hate crimes. That number is close to half the number of hate crimes targeting Muslims that the FBI recorded for all of 2014.

Madihha Ahussain, a staff attorney with the group’s Program to Counter Anti-Muslim Hate, said there was already concern about a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes between 2013 and 2014. While the number of overall hate crimes decreased in that time, hate crimes targeting Muslims increased from 135 incidents in 2013 and to 154 incidents in 2014, according to the FBI.

Though the figure is still well below the 609 anti-Jewish hate crimes the FBI recorded in 2014 — the most targeted group for hate crimes based on religion — the uptick is a worrying trend that advocates hope Mr. Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore can help to turn around.

“This is something that Muslim advocates have been calling for the president to do for some time now,” Ms. Ahussain said. “His timing couldn’t be more critical given everything that’s going on especially since a lot of leaders are actually distancing themselves from the Muslim community.”

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Hate crime victims are most often targeted because of race, according to the FBI, which recorded a total of 5,479 hate crimes in 2014. Anti-Semitism has historic roots, but Muslims only became a frequent target of hate crimes after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Fear of Islamist radicalization following the latest terror attacks and statements made by public officials, most notably Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s pushing for a temporary ban on Muslim travelers entering the U.S., has only exacerbated anti-Islamic sentiment, she said.

“Speech has consequences,” Ms. Beirich said. “When a public figure says demonizing things, that’s what you get.”

On the flip side, she noted the positive affects of President George W. Bush’s visit to the Islamic Center of Washington less than a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“When Bush did that, it had an incredibly calming effect,” Ms. Beirich said. “We saw the same type of backlash it was like that whole frenzy died down.”

She said American Muslims hoping for a similar effect from Mr. Obama’s visit.

While the president has visited mosques abroad on official trips, his stop in Baltimore will be the first time he’s visited a Muslim place of worship in the U.S.

The issue has been a tricky one for Mr. Obama, who has some critics that have speculated he is secretly a Muslim. His father and stepfather were Muslims and Mr. Obama has spoken highly of Islam. But the president is a Christian who, ironically, took political grief in 2008 because of his closeness to the firebrand minister at his Chicago church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The White House has said Mr. Obama’s visit is important for the country as an opportunity to reaffirm the American values of religious freedom and religious tolerance.

Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, is one of those who will be in attendance at Wednesday’s event.

“In this current climate of really intense bigotry and Islamophobia, having the president visit a mosque sends a message that American Muslims are just that — we are part of the community,” Ms. Hawa said.

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