US President Barack Obama on Wednesday offered an impassioned rebuttal of “inexcusable” Republican election-year rhetoric against Muslims as he made his first trip to an American mosque, seven years into his presidency.
Obama, whose grandfather converted to Islam, made the short trip to the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque, where he met community leaders and called on Americans not to be “bystanders to bigotry.”
Invoking the Prophet Mohammed and hailing the tolerance shown by American political icons from Thomas Jefferson to Dwight Eisenhower, Obama hit out at anti-Islamic sentiment that is “not who we are.”
“We’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans that has no place in our country,” he said, lauding Muslim-Americans who were sports heroes, entrepreneurs and the architect behind the skyscrapers of Chicago.
His comments came as a shrill election debate has sullied America’s image abroad, and jihadist attacks in San Bernardino and Philadelphia threatened to shatter post-9/11 religious solidarity at home.
Six days after the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, then Republican president George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, declaring “Islam is peace.”
In recent months, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has wooed conservative voters by demanding a ban on Muslim immigrants, while frontrunner Ted Cruz has advocated Christian-only admissions and championed “Judeo-Christian values.”
On Wednesday, Obama said: “An attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths.” (He had used the identical phrase in a speech at a Holocaust remembrance event last week at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC — the first visit to the embassy by a sitting US president.)
He also criticized the media and Hollywood, which he said portray Muslims in a narrow way. “Our television shows should have Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security,” he said. Drawing a parallel with African-Americans’ struggle for broad societal acceptance, he noted, “there was a time when there were no black people on television.”
Obama had visited mosques in Malaysia, Indonesia and Egypt as president, but this was his first visit to one of America’s 2,000-plus places of Islamic worship.
In 2009, a freshly elected Obama traveled to Cairo to call for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world. Much of Obama’s foreign policy agenda has focused on improving ties with Muslim nations, from making a nuclear deal with Iran to ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the effort has been stymied by continued confrontation with jihadist groups and military strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Obama restated his case that organizations like the Islamic State group pervert Islam and do not represent the vast majority of Muslims. The president offered “two words that Muslim-Americans don’t hear often enough, and that is thank you,” saying they help unite the country in “one American family.”
But he also called on Muslims to help tackle radicalization. “How do we defend ourselves against organizations that are bent on killing innocents?” he asked. “It can’t be the work of any one faith alone. It can’t be just a burden on the Muslim community, although the Muslim community has to play a role.”
That message is a vexed one for members of the community, including those who oppose violence.
“I know national security will come up in the speech just because of the climate of today,” said Riham Osman of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group, ahead of the speech. “It does upset me a little bit that it is his first time coming to visit a mosque, and there will be kids there who have grown up in this post 9/11 era and their faith is constantly linked to national security and extremism.”
Inserting himself into a debate that has ricocheted in the presidential campaign, Obama told parishioners at the mosque that he’d heard from young Muslims worried they’ll be rounded up and kicked out of the country. He said Muslims, too, are concerned about the threat of terrorism but are too often blamed as a group “for the violent acts of the very few.”
“We’ve seen children bullied, we’ve seen mosques vandalized,” Obama said, warning that such unequal treatment for certain groups in society tears at the nation’s fabric. “That’s not who we are.”
For Muslim advocates, Obama’s visit was a long-awaited gesture to a community that has warned of escalating vitriol against them that has accompanied the public’s concern about the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
For Obama, the visit reflected a willingness to wade into touchy social issues that often eluded him earlier in his presidency. For years, Obama has fought incorrect claims that he’s actually a Muslim and was born in Kenya, beliefs that polls suggest remain prevalent among many Republicans. Obama, a Christian, was born in Hawaii.
Obama, acknowledging that uncomfortable chapter in his own story, noted that Thomas Jefferson had also been accused of being a Muslim. “So I was not the first,” Obama said to laughter from a hundred or so Muslims who gathered for his speech. “No, it’s true. Look it up.”
With no plans to ever again appear on a ballot, Obama faces less pressure to avoid political controversy, and seemed to relish the possibility that his visit would raise eyebrows among some of his most entrenched critics. Ahead of his visit, White House officials acknowledged the visit could spark controversy but suggested that would help make his point about ignorance and religious bias.
Still, the president was pointed in acknowledging that concerns about violence emanating from some corners of the Islamic world were not ill-founded. He denounced what he called an “organized extremist element” twisting selective Islamic texts in a way that ends up reflecting negatively on the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Muslims.
“It is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam. This is the truth,” Obama said. He added, “It’s real. It’s there.”
But Obama said suggestions that Islam is at the root of the problem only play into terrorist propaganda, weakening US national security as opposed to strengthening it. He said IS and other extremist groups are desperately working to legitimize themselves by masquerading as religious leaders and holy warriors.
“We must never give them that legitimacy. They’re not defending Islam,” Obama said. “The vast majority of the people they kill are innocent Muslim men, women and children.”
Ahead of his speech at the suburban Islamic Society of Baltimore, Obama met with Muslim university chaplains, community activists and public health professionals to discuss religious tolerance and freedom. Among the participants was fencer Ibtihaj Muhamma. The White House said she’ll make history at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games as the first United States Olympian to compete in a hijab.
Nearly half of Americans think at least some US Muslims are anti-American, according to a new Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday. Two-thirds of Americans said people, not religious teachings, are to blame when violence is committed in the name of faith. However, when respondents were asked which religion they consider troubling, Islam was the most common answer.
“We never thought that when we held our first prayers in the small room nearly a half a century ago that we would be hosting the president,” said Muhammad Jameel, the mosque’s president. “Today is a new starting point. It is also a continuing journey — a journey steeped in American history and tradition.”
The United States is home to around 3.3 million Muslims.
Around 81 Muslim-Americans were involved in violent extremist plots in 2015, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.