Amidst what Muslim leaders in America described as the most stressful moment in their community’s history, President Barack Obama visited Islamic Society of Baltimore last month, making more insightful comments than any leader has ever made regarding Islam in the United States. During his first visit to a mosque in the country, Obama not only preached inclusion but also urged adherents of Islam to fight religious extremism.
Obama’s comments were targeted towards a triple audience. First: he stressed the urgent need for America’s population to accept Muslims. Second: he addressed the country’s Muslims, telling them that they have a place in America so they should help resist radicalism. Third: he called for religious freedom and pluralism across the world, clarifying that the United States was not waging war against Islam.
“Most Americans don’t necessarily know, or at least don’t know that they know, a Muslim personally. And as a result, many only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film, all of which gives this hugely distorted impression,” Obama said. “And since 9/11 –but more recently since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino– you’ve seen too often people conflating the horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith. And of course, recently we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric about Muslim Americans that has no place in our country.”
Condemning the likes of Donald Trump, Obama spoke of Islam as an essential part of America’s heritage, citing the example of Muslim slaves who were brought to various British colonies and tracing their history up to Fazlur Rahman Khan, who designed the two tallest skyscrapers in Chicago. The president also spoke of several emails that he had received from Muslim parents and children who expressed concern over their safety and persecution in the United States.
“We’re one American family. And when any part of our family starts to feel separate or second-class or targeted, it tears at the very fabric of our nation,” he said.
Obama’s visit to Islamic Society of Baltimore came at a time when American Muslims were reportedly being subjected to a growing number of Islamophobic attacks, mirrored by the Republican presidential race. For instance, Trump suggested the maintenance of a registry for Muslims in the United States and insisted that all Muslims be barred from entering America.
“With the recent spike in anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide and especially in the last few months since the Paris terror attacks and the San Bernardino attacks… there’s never been this level of fear and apprehension in the American Muslim community before,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council of American-Islamic Relations. “Unfortunately, now thanks to people like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, it’s directly in the mainstream.”
Against this backdrop, leaders from across the country welcomed Obama’s visit to Islamic Society of Baltimore as an important sign of the president snubbing Islamophobic attacks and also telling Muslims that they do in fact belong in the United States.
“It means to us that we are a part of this society,” said Riham Osman, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.
On February 3, Obama took the liberty to respond to his critics, particularly Republican contenders, who wish to replace him as president and have often complained that he does not label Islamic terrorism by saying such demands to call out on religious grounds only contribute to existing extremist propaganda.
“I often hear it said that we need moral clarity in this fight. And the suggestion is somehow that if I would simply say, ‘These are all Islamic terrorists,’ then we would actually have solved the problem by now, apparently,” he said. “Let’s have some moral clarity: Groups like ISIS are desperate for legitimacy.... We must never give them that legitimacy. They’re not defending Islam. They’re not defending Muslims.”
Subtly responding to tiresome calls for moderate Muslims to condemn terrorism, the president said that even though they may be speaking out, not enough Americans are listening to them. In this context, he promised to work harder towards amplifying the voices of moderate Muslims in the United States.
Before making his appearance at Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday, Obama met with a group of Muslims; including youth, foreigners, American-borns, converts and those belonging to different ethnic backgrounds. He told them that they belong in America and have equal access to religious freedom as their Christian counterparts.
“You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America too. You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American,” he said, also warning them not to “respond to ignorance by embracing a worldview that suggests you must choose between your faith and your patriotism.”
Responding to consistent complaints about intrusive policing and civil liberties violations, he said that the government should not deal with American Muslims solely through the lens of law enforcement. Such rhetoric is believed to cause some discomfort among American Muslims.
“There are a lot of young people in this mosque. It’s hard that they’ve grown up in a post-9/11 society where they are constantly tied to violent extremism,” Riham Osman said. “It’s going to bring up some feelings.”
Shifting focus to a global audience, Obama reiterated that the United States was not waging war against Islam.
“Just as all Americans have a responsibility to reject discrimination... Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies,” he said, highlighting in particular anti-Semitic attacks in Europe committed by Muslims.
At the start of his address, Obama noted that there are many Americans who have still not visited a mosque. He urged them to visit one at the earliest and learn more about the community.
“Think of your own church or synagogue or temple. This is where families come to worship and express their love for God and each other,” he said, mentioning Cub Scout and Girl Scout meetings, basketball games, health clinics and more.
What Obama did not mention however was the fact that this was his own first visit to a mosque in America. While grateful for his decision to finally visit Islamic Society of Baltimore, Muslim leaders could not help but wonder what took the president so long.
“We’ve been advocating along with other Muslim organizations for years,” Osman said.
Obama’s apparent unwillingness to visit a mosque has emerged as a symbol of the frustration that many Muslims feel towards him.
During his presidential campaign, Obama spoke about the importance of civil liberties and promised to improve relationships with the Muslim world. Naturally, there were high hopes when he was sworn in as the President of the United States after winning support from an overwhelming portion of American Muslims. Yet, some Muslims have continued to feel frustrated with Obama since 2008. While his actions in office failed to match his campaign rhetoric on civil liberties, America continued to involve itself militarily with the Middle East. This caused his critics to link his laidback attitude with a combination of extreme political pressure, which includes false suggestions that he himself is a practicing Muslim.
“I guess it’s natural human inclination to avoid even scurrilous attacks,” Hooper (spokesman for the Council of American-Islamic Relations) said.
However, Obama responded to those baseless attacks on Wednesday.
“Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim. I was not the first. Look it up! I’m in good company,” he said.
A single visit to a mosque at this point in his political career might not be enough to roll back the growing climate of fear in the United States. But Obama’s gesture represented an unusually bold step to reach out to American Muslims; bolder than any other adopted by an American president to date.
Photo Credits: WBAL-TV 11