Every March since 2014, the Islamic Society of Baltimore has organized a minor pilgrimage for as many as 60 of its congregants to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holy city for Muslims and birthplace of the prophet Muhammad.
This year, the trip was canceled amid fears that Donald Trump’s travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries might bar re-entry even to those who call the United States their home.
“With the community being comprised of a large number of immigrants, we felt it was important to put things on hold until we had more clarity,” said Saad Malik, a member of the Baltimore area mosque who helps facilitate the annual event.
“It was better to be safe than sorry.”
On the Friday before the second version of Trump’s travel ban was to take effect, congregants shuffled in and out of the three-story prayer space in suburban Baltimore.
It seemed a distant memory to many that one year ago, at the height of a Republican primary season overrun by hostile rhetoric against Muslims, Barack Obama chose the community for his first visit to a US mosque as president.
Although it took Obama until the last year of his presidency to finally mark the occasion, many who attended now look back upon the encounter almost wistfully.
Dr Ed Tori, who serves on the Islamic Society of Baltimore’s leadership committee, recalled it as “an epic speech that really energized our local community”. In recent months, following Trump’s election, he has instead wondered what fate awaits the 3,000 who worship at the mosque and estimated three million Muslims in the US.
“Could it get as bad as us wearing yellow Ms on our shirts and having to go to a camp? Yeah, it could get that bad,” he said.
“But I hope that our legal system and the checks and balances and the surrounding community would prevent that.”
Inside the Islamic Society of Baltimore, classrooms have emptied for the weekly service. A loudspeaker carries the sermon of an imam who encourages attendees to be the best version of themselves and give back to their communities.
In February 2016, it was the president who offered such words of encouragement. In a speech that celebrated the everyday contributions of Muslims, Obama pointedly denounced election-year hyperbole that painted Muslims with a broad brush.
“We can’t be bystanders to bigotry,” Obama said. “We have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.
“Let me say as clearly as I can as president of the United States: you fit right here,” he added to the hundreds in attendance. “You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America too.”
Although he did not refer to any candidate by name, Obama’s remarks came less than two months after then candidate Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. Few in the audience would have predicted then that Trump would win the Republican nomination, much less be elected president.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it happened, because the rhetoric became much more negative on the campaign trail,” said Danette Zaghari-Mask, an English teacher at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, of Obama’s visit. “It was an affirmation … recognizing aspects of our community that we’ve always known.
“Now we have a president who has a very different tone, a very different message. As a parent it’s very concerning to me.”
At the time of Obama’s remarks at the mosque, Trump dismissed its significance while hinting at debunked conspiracy theories that the president was himself a Muslim.
“I don’t know, maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go and he chose a mosque.”
The travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries was among Trump’s first acts as president and one his administration vigorously defended by serving up falsehoods about the vetting process for those seeking to immigrate into the country. While making the case for his policy in his first joint address to Congress earlier this month, Trump employed the phrase “radical Islam” against the guidance of his new national security adviser, HR McMaster.
The president’s attitude has been amplified by his staff, who have made few efforts to recast or clarify his thinking, even as the ban was blocked by courts and his second, narrower ban faces new legal challenges. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, recently ducked a question about a report that found the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in America tripled last year. Rather than address the Southern Poverty Law Center’s findings, Spicer launched into a canned rebuke of “radical Islamic terrorism”.
The approach stands in contrast not just to Obama, but also to Trump’s Republican predecessor. George W Bush, just days after the attacks on 11 September 2001, memorably went to a mosque in Washington in an attempt to quell backlash against Muslims in America.
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Bush said in his speech. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”
Since Trump took office, two mosques in Texas were burned to the ground while several people were killed in a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. None were addressed by Trump directly – although Spicer offered his condolences for the Quebec attack before holding it up as a rationale for the administration’s travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries, even though those targeted were Muslims.
“When you talk about the policies being harmful, that’s one thing,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, a native of Maryland who attends prayer services at the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
“But the discourse that they use to justify and facilitate the creation of [Trump’s] policies – that in and of itself has been harmful and you see that manifesting in the increase in hate crimes, targeting especially not just Muslims but anybody who shares the physical traits of Muslims.”
For Zaghari-Mask, insecurities about the current political climate have meant tough conversations with her students about scapegoating and other moments in history when groups have been subject to discrimination based on religion or nationality. It has also meant protecting her 10-year-old daughter from alienation.
Last week, Zaghari-Mask’s daughter was crying when she was picked up from school. She said one of her friends told her she “wasn’t allowed to be friends with people who wear those things on their heads”.
“My daughter doesn’t wear a scarf, I do,” said Zaghari-Mask. “We’re really concerned about normalizing hatred and suspicion.”
A January survey found that about half of Americans think at least some US Muslims are anti-American.
The Islamic Society of Baltimore, like other mosques across the country, has enhanced its security since the election and also taken active steps to respond. Its school recently started a committee with a focus on how to combat Islamophobia and antisemitism.
But there is also an outpouring of support that has stemmed from Trump’s election.
Whereas mail was once equally divided between positive and negative messages, Tori noted, it’s now “off the charts positive”.
There have been offers to go shopping for Muslim women who might be reluctant to go out in public. Tori’s daughter was even stopped on her way out of the mosque by someone who asked her how to wear a hijab (headscarf) “so that she could wear one in solidarity”.
Some faith leaders have issued public invitations to Trump to visit a mosque as president and learn more about his Muslim constituents. The congregants at the Islamic Society of Baltimore have a simpler request.
“We are a representation of American values when it comes to people who work hard, who practice their religious liberties, who come out and stand up for what this country believes in,” said Mahmoud.
“That’s our community. Don’t count us out just because we’re Muslim.”