Rights groups say Islam-focused interactive website designed for schools amounts to racial and religious profiling.
Muslims have welcomed the announcement that US President Barack Obama will make his first official visit to an American mosque as an exciting and long-awaited development.
In the final year of his presidency, the American leader will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB) on Wednesday, according to the White House.
“We at the ISB are honoured to welcome President Obama at our centre,” Maqbool Patel, ISB president, told Al Jazeera.
“ISB is among largest organisations in the nation, and thousands of families are affiliated with this Islamic Centre.”
On Saturday, a White House aide said the visit is to “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 visit comes amid a growing number of hate crimes towards members of America’s Muslim minority, which is approximately about 3.3 million people – or one percent of the total population.
“The mosque is about five minutes from my parents’ home, so it’s a double honour,” Zainab Chaudry, the Maryland representative for the Council on American Relations (CAIR), told Al Jazeera.
“We’re very excited that he [Obama] is making this long-awaited trip.”
Hate crimes rising
A study by CAIR, a US Muslim advocacy and civil rights group, said the number of incidents targeting mosques in America reached a record in 2015, citing harassment and intimidation.
“Many organisations, including ours, have been calling on Obama to visit a mosque, specifically to address the anti-Muslim sentiment that we see more recently,” said Chaudry, who was born and raised in Baltimore, a city of more than 600,000 people of which she estimates 10 percent is Muslim.
“His visit has been the subject of many dinner table conversations,” added Chaudry. “The local Muslim community is extremely excited.”
Since the announcement, however, reports emerged accusing that the chosen mosque was “radical” and politically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“That was to be expected,” said Chaudry. “There is anti-Muslim bigotry and the people that make such claims have a vested interest in tearing down a momentous occasion.”
Zak Nur, a 27-year-old Baltimore native, told Al Jazeera that the ISB is seen as a safe haven.
“Characterising the Baltimore Muslim community is an extremely difficult and arduous task as it is composed of converts and immigrant Muslims representing dozens of countries, all of which practice the religion to varying degrees of religiosity,” he said.
“Because the ISB is one of the oldest Islamic institutions in Maryland, it has provided as a safe haven and at the very basic level, a community centre.”
He added that Obama’s planned visit represents inclusion, and is a positive step.
“The visit is a symbol of the rich tradition of inclusivity in the American story, despite the polarising political climate that we’re in currently,” he said.
“Instead of being angry that it has taken Obama this long to visit an American mosque, I’m more angry of the idea that visiting an American mosque has to be controversial.”
As well as providing a place for prayer, the ISB provides classes in internet safety and the Arabic and Urdu languages.
It also holds fundraising events for students planning a trip to Mecca (Saudi Arabia) for Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage. On Thanksgiving, the centre hosted a dinner, complete with turkey and mashed potatoes.
The mosque was also made famous in 2014; it was featured in the popular American podcast Serial which documented the story of Adnan Syed, a teenager who was accused of killing his former girlfriend.
Ibrahim Hooper, also of CAIR, said: “We’re pleased that Obama is going to an American mosque. We’ve been making that request for a number of years now.
“It took until this point of his presidency; perhaps it’s because of this tremendous increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in our society that he’s responded to the requests.”
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla