The Baltimore mosque that President Obama will visit this week to show support for American Muslims has historical ties to radical Islamic groups.
The Islamic Society of Baltimore had an imam who was a leading figure in the extremist Muslim Brotherhood. The organization also is connected to the Islamic Society of North America, a Muslim civil rights group named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a 2008 criminal prosecution in which several individuals were convicted of funneling money to the terrorist group Hamas.
The president’s choice of the first U.S. mosque to visit is “insulting” to American Muslims, said Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim who is vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“It’s disgraceful that this is the mosque he’s picked to be the first to visit,” Dr. Jasser said on “Fox & Friends” on Sunday. “This mosque is very concerning. … Historically, they are basically a radical, extreme mosque and not representative of the modern Muslims in America.”
Alarmed by anti-Muslim rhetoric from some of the Republican presidential candidates, Mr. Obama intends to use the visit to the mosque on Wednesday as a gesture of tolerance for American Muslims.
A White House official said that Mr. Obama will “celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life.”
“The president will hold a roundtable with community members and deliver remarks, where he will reiterate the importance of staying true to our core values: welcoming our fellow Americans, speaking out against bigotry, rejecting indifference and protecting our nation’s tradition of religious freedom,” the White House aide said.
Some past leaders of the mosque are well known to counterterrorism agencies. Mohammad Adam el-Sheikh, an imam who served at the Baltimore mosque for 15 years, most recently in 2003, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan in the 1970s. He also has worked for an Islamic relief group that the Treasury Department designated as a terrorist organization in 2004.
Mr. el-Sheikh also co-founded the Muslim American Society in Falls Church, Virginia, a group controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. His ties were first reported Saturday by The Daily Caller.
In 2004 he told The Washington Post that those who founded the society felt that “we should cut relations with the [Muslim Brotherhood] abroad and regard ourselves as Americans. … We don’t receive an order from any organization abroad, and [they] have no authority to tell us what to do.”
But he also told his congregation in Falls Church that Palestinian suicide bombings were sometimes justifiable.
“If certain Muslims are to be cornered where they cannot defend themselves, except through these kinds of means, and their local religious leaders issued fatwas to permit that, then it becomes acceptable as an exceptional rule, but should not be taken as a principle,” he said.
The Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, where Mr. el-Sheikh served as imam, also had an imam in the 1990s named Mohammed al-Hanooti, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York.
On its website, the ISB referred media questions about the president’s upcoming visit to the White House press office. The mosque’s home page states that it seeks “to be the anchor of a growing Muslim community with diverse backgrounds, democratically governed, relating to one another with inclusiveness and tolerance, and interacting with neighbors in an Islamic exemplary manner.”
The president has criticized GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for advocating a ban on Muslim immigrants and opposing his program to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to come to the U.S. this year. Mr. Obama has said anti-Muslim comments make it more difficult for the U.S. to get the cooperation of allies in the Middle East to fight the Islamic State, and such rhetoric discourages American Muslims from cooperating with law enforcement authorities.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 12, Mr. Obama called on Americans “to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” the president said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.”
Hamdi Rifai, a Syrian-American activist who is president of Arab Americans for Democracy in Syria, said his group plans to protest the president’s visit “to show Muslims do not support Obama’s policies domestically or internationally, particularly regarding Syria.”
Dr. Jasser, who was appointed to his post on the commission by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Obama is using the visit as a political stunt ahead of the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.
“He’s using it as a backdrop, to see all the pictures this week of him meeting with Muslims, talking about diversity, talking about equality, [to] make Republicans look bad,” he said. “Our Muslim community’s all about a backdrop of partisan one-upmanship rather than real reform that the president should lead domestically and globally.”
In 2013 another imam at the mosque, Yaseen Shaikh, delivered a sermon on YouTube in which he characterized homosexuality as a psychological disorder that has no place in Islam or society.
“This whole subject of homosexuality in the public sphere … is no longer a religious issue. Unfortunately, as much as we want to use the religious card and try to defeat this, now it’s become a politicized issue,” Mr. Shaikh said in the video. “Politicians are highly influenced by people who back them, and we find that these politicians who are calling for gay rights and marriage and supporting gay rights are lobbied and campaigned by gay activists, by gay groups. And they are throwing money at it left and right to gain some acceptance in society, to be considered normal people, to be treated normally.”
Last spring the Islamic Society of Baltimore was the target of an anonymous caller who threatened to bomb a children’s bus.
Although Mr. Obama has toured historic mosques abroad, he has yet to visit any in the U.S. He has turned down invitations from mosques previously.
A Protestant Christian, the president has frequently been the subject of speculation that he is a Muslim. A CNN/ORC poll last September found that 29 percent of respondents believe the president is a member of the Islamic faith.