Just a Day at the Masjid With Obama

This is the story of how Naeem Muhammad, IRUSA Community Outreach Manager, didn’t quite get to emcee for President Obama, but had an amazing day at an historic event in his home city of Baltimore. Story as told to IRUSA writer Lina Hashem.

I got the call on Tuesday, early morning. A good friend from Baltimore called me and asked, “Where are you?” My friends know I travel a lot for Native Deen or for relief work.

I said, “I’m home, I just got back from Flint, and I’m going to the office.” He said, “They’re looking for you — they want you to emcee the event tomorrow.  The White House is looking for you.” I was like, “What? How do they know me?”

I’m born and raised in Baltimore, and the masjid Obama was going to visit is one of the masajid I grew up in. I called one of the organizers there and they said, “We need to get your invitation squared away — be ready to answer the phone at any time.”

I don’t get excited about things — I’ve learned to be calm and be easy in case things don’t work out. Prepare for the best but don’t expect it to happen. So throughout the day, I started getting emails to get the invitation right — my Social Security Number, name, address, all that kind of stuff. But later that night, plans had changed, as they do, that I wasn’t going to emcee anymore but I should attend. I was still happy to attend.

It’s a big deal for me, because this was happening in my hometown and it’s a historic occasion, something that’s never happened in our city and for this president — a president we had such high hopes for. I was there on his inauguration day — just a regular citizen standing out in the cold, me and my younger brother, to listen to Obama and see what he had to say, so it reminded me of that.

So I went up to Baltimore, and as I’m going up, friends of mine said NPR wants to interview you and Al Jazeera wants to interview you, so keep your phone on and be ready to answer the call.

I had to drive up from Virginia, which is a herculean task in the morning rush hour — they were not going to let people in after 9:15. I got there at 8:40. The line to get into the parking lot was huge, but since I’m from there, I know where you’re meant to park when you can’t get into the parking lot. So I parked across the street where I was to meet the press, where a lot of them were stationed.

I walked in and the amount of security was almost overwhelming. There were local police, Army people, Secret Service at the gate, checking people’s cars as they went in. I get to the mosque and see my friend Rehan, who was the guy who called me in the first place. He gave me a little hug and said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you to be emcee, but I’m glad you’re here with us anyway.”

So we were waiting in line, and ahead of us were Muslim servicemen. They were all being regaled by stories by the CEO of IRUSA, Anwar Khan. It was great. I was seeing community members I grew up with, I’m seeing people I knew from masajid all across the city and even got to see somebody I think is a complete rock star, who I know pretty well, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team.

The excitement was building. It was definitely building now for me because I was there. You’re seeing all these people show up — the media, young kids from the Islamic school all giddy with excitement because they’re going to meet the president, children of friends of mine.

We finally get into the mosque, after they checked my ID and arm band. Then I know I’m in — there’s no mistaking it. Another friend of mine who was there said, “Make sure you get up front, fill up the front seats.” People were being kind of modest with it. I was kind of like, “Aw shucks, I’m getting up front,” so I just took it.

As time went on, it was great, because you started to see the room fill up with a who’s who of the Muslim community. Linda Sarsour was there, Rami Nashashibi was there, Saafir Rabb was there. Haroon Moghul. Huda and Riham from MPAC. Even Congressman Ellison and Congressman Carson are in the room, and it just keeps filling with these amazing Muslim leaders, and even community members that other people may not know. A friend was there whose daughter was going to recite Quran and she was so excited to see it.

It was a lot of hurry up and wait. I was thinking, “If he’s trying not to make people think he’s Muslim, he probably should have started the event on time.” But really, he wasn’t meant to even land until 10:15, and they were going to do a round table with Suzanne Barakat and some other selected people. While we were waiting, I met someone else who was asked to be the emcee — a young girl. She said, “I heard you were the one who was going to take my job.” I said, “Don’t worry, I didn’t get it either.”

When he finally gets in the room around 12, they start the Quranic recitation. The emcee announced, “The President … of the Islamic Society of Baltimore,” and everybody busted out laughing. The whole room lost it. They thought it was going to be Obama.

One of the highlights of the day was the speaker who opened for Obama — a young girl who went to that Islamic school at one point and now she’s a premed student. She was talking about how it was to be a young American Muslim, how when she was going to wear hijab for the first time and she was scared to go to the bus stop, there were people who broke down stereotypes. Like her friend Jake, who said, “That thing on your head is cool.” She talked about how she was a proud Muslim who’s African American, and that meant a lot to me.
Then Obama comes out and everybody stands. There was a guy who was sitting to my left who was preparing the ultimate selfie for like an hour. He had his phone ready to catch it.

Obama’s a really great speaker, and one of the main things I liked about his speech — and it reminded me of the inauguration — is that he was trying to do his part to make things inclusive and to make everyone feel like they have a place. And that we have a role to play in this great country of ours.  He said, “You have a role, and we need you guys to champion such great efforts so other people know about your faith, and we need your expertise that you bring to the community.” I really enjoyed that.

He also told people that they can challenge him on his foreign policy, and Muslims don’t have to feel that being a proud American means you have to go along with everything the president does. That’s what this country’s built on — challenge authority to make this country better. He welcomed challenges, which was great.

It was a great energy. Then he went to the other room to meet the students and other community members. I was interviewed by NPR later — they renamed me Naeem Chaudry.

I just felt really blessed that the majority of the people in the room — these are people I meet on a regular basis. They’re award winning journalists like Omar Mullick to activists to entertainers like Dean Obeidallah. So many people. It showed all the richness of what our community has to offer. I was blessed to be there not only as myself but also as a member of Islamic Relief USA and of course Native Deen.

I was very proud of my city that night, and how well they represented our community. And the door’s always open — he can come back next week too. He can come for the 3-on-3 basketball tournament — I know he really likes to play basketball.

And that goes for any other American. Our hearts are open and welcome — come on in.