Mosque to host Obama grew from tiny gathering to influential congregation

When President Barack Obama steps shoeless into the prayer room at the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday, he'll be entering a mosque that began as a small Sunday gathering at the Johns Hopkins University but is now one of the largest and most influential Muslim communities in the Mid-Atlantic.

It will be Obama's first visit to an American mosque as president. The White House says the event, in which Obama is to participate in a roundtable discussion with community leaders, is designed to reinforce the ideal of religious tolerance at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is growing.

"It's an opportunity for the president to celebrate the contributions of the Muslim-American community to our country," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Muslims, who are estimated to make up nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population, have faced increasing discrimination and hostility in the wake of deadly attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., and Paris linked to the self-declared Islamic State, Muslims and others say.

Lawmakers have tightened restrictions on travelers from Muslim countries, and calls by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to ban all Muslims from entering the United States have drawn cheers on the campaign trail.

Obama, meanwhile, has called on the Muslim community to increase cooperation with authorities to root out radical Islamists.

The Islamic Society of Baltimore campus on Johnnycake Road in Catonsville houses a mosque, a school and a seminary as well as a Girl Scout troop and an athletic club. Founded in 1969 by three doctors, the society now has about 3,000 congregants. This week, its leaders were rushing to get their facilities ready for the presidential visit.

Society members say they're excited to have a chance to show that the mosque's members are just regular people. But Dr. Ed Tori, who serves on the mosque's leadership committee, said it's also brought some trepidation.

"It's like being happy you're going to welcome an honored guest," he said, "but wary because you realize some people are also going to go into your attic, pull out your yearbook from decades ago, and ask you about something tangentially mentioned in there."

Since the White House announced the visit over the weekend, conservative news sites have tried to focus attention on Mohamad Adam El Sheikh, a former longtime imam at the mosque.

In 2004, after he left the Islamic Society of Baltimore, El Sheikh was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that suicide bombings might be acceptable in extreme circumstances.

In response to written questions, El Sheikh said Tuesday he had never condoned suicide attacks. He called them "un-Islamic."

"I have spoken out repeatedly and consistentlyagainst terrorism and religious extremism and in support of freedom and justice for all people," he said.

He expressed the same view to The Baltimore Sun in 1985, during his tenure as imam.

The mosque today is a vibrant community that attracts professionals from throughout Maryland for prayer services, education and social services.

Its Al-Rahmah K-12 school educates more than 400 students. The society also runs a nursery, a summer camp, a community health clinic and a Quran academy. Society members regularly lead charitable efforts, gathering canned food and clothing for the local needy and sending teams to help respond to disasters around the country.

At the same time, mosque attendees included Majid Khan, the al-Qaida member from Baltimore County who pleaded guilty to transporting money used in a hotel bombing that killed 11 people in Indonesia. Khan taught computer classes and directed traffic during Friday prayers at the mosque before he was arrested in Pakistan in 2003.

Khan, who has been held at Guantanamo Bay since 2006, has agreed to cooperate with military lawyers as they prosecute his former al-Qaida comrades.

Obama has pledged to close the base at Guantanamo. The administration has called it a recruiting call for terrorists. But despite extra efforts in recent months to transfer detainees to U.S. allies, it still houses nearly 100 men — many of them captured in the early days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — without charges.

J. Wells Dixon, Khan's lawyer, said authorities should treat Khan fairly as they consider plans for closing the facility.

"We hope that President Obama will think about Majid Khan when he visits the Islamic Society of Baltimore," Dixon said. "Majid has done the right thing and taken responsibility for his actions."

Intelligence and law enforcement officials are increasingly worried about the Islamic State luring young Muslim Americans to go overseas and fight with the Islamic State — or to carry out attacks in its name in the United States.

The number that have attempted to join ISIS or other terror groups remains tiny, and the Obama administration — like the administration of President George W. Bush before it — has taken pains not to tie Islam and terrorism together, while also seeking new ways to divert people from violence.

Rabia Chaudry, whose family are members of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, said authorities and Muslims alike are still figuring out what that effort — often called countering violence extremism — ought to look like.

Chaudry is a fellow at the liberal think tank New America and founder of a company that trains law enforcement officers on how to interact effectively with Muslims.

"We have to be balanced in not demonizing the community, but finding a way that the community itself feels like they have some ability to make an impact," she said.

Chaudry said she would not be available to welcome the president on Wednesday.

Through the Islamic Society of Baltimore she met the family of Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer who is trying to overturn the 2000 verdict against him. Chaudry championed Syed's cause, and will be in court for hearings in his case this week.

Raees Khan, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Muslim Council, said the president's visit will send an important message at a key time.

"People want to see the names that they've been supporting," said Khan, who regularly prays at the society's mosque. "They want to see who is standing with them at a time when people like Mr. Trump are talking about Islam."

The community at the Islamic Society of Baltimore is diverse, but consists predominantly of immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and their families. The society has its roots in the small group that began meeting at Shaffer Hall on Hopkins' Homewood campus to pray, discuss scripture and study Arabic.

By the end of the 1970s, the society numbered 100 families and had bought the plot on Johnnycake Road.

A single mosque can accommodate many different religious and intellectual currents. The Islamic Society of Baltimore adheres mostly to a fairly conservative version of Sunni Islam.

But there is a pragmatic streak. For example, men and women usually are separated at prayer times, but when the crowd overflows, the rules are relaxed.

"We emphasize education, more than anything else," said Maqbool Patel, a former president of the society. "The masjid" — the mosque — "is open to everyone."

With the president's visit looming, society leaders were rushing this week to prepare.

The White House expects about 200 guests to watch the president speak, and a dozen community leaders will meet with him for the roundtable discussion. He is to be introduced by Sabah Muktar, a junior majoring in biology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Mosque leaders said they expect the president to meet children in the school's gym, which has prompted excited anticipation from students who hope to make the cut and meet the president.

The mosque learned only last Thursday night that the president would be coming — and even then were asked not to share the information.

On Friday, they said, they began spreading the news. Members say they have been scrambling to create for Obama and his team the kind of hospitality that is a hallmark of Islam.

Workers have been deep-cleaning, "changing minor stuff like lights," Tori said, and expanding broadband to accommodate the expected crush of reporters Wednesday.

One afternoon this week, mothers wearing either the traditional hijab or niqab arrived by the dozen to pick up their children, while a work crew was power-washing the small plaza outside the front entrance. Painters were using rollers to give the front foyer, main hall and gym fresh coats of white and yellow.

On Tuesday, Moti Khan stood on high ladders in the prayer room. He had volunteered his services to clean 99 windows, each of which bears a different name for Allah in Arabic calligraphy, reflecting his different attributes. The windows will form the backdrop for Obama when he speaks.

Tori said it's as if the community had been told at the last minute that it would be hosting the Olympics.

"You have to get the stadium ready," he said. "But you don't get four years. You get a few days."