In his first visit to a mosque since he was elected to the White House nearly eight years ago, President Barack Obama called anti-Islamic sentiment rampant in the United States today “inexcusable” and said such rhetoric has no place in American society.
A stoic Obama told the congregation at the Islamic Society of Baltimore that he was inspired by the successful lives they’ve built for themselves in America as scientists, doctors, US soldiers, and noted that he is comforted by the mosque’s service to the city.
But the president’s most impassioned comments came when, without naming any presidential candidate in particular, he lamented anti-Muslim rhetoric propagated by politicians—which he directly linked with attacks on Muslim communities throughout the country.
“Recently we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country,” Obama said Wednesday. “No surprise then that threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged.”
Two threats were made against the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he said. Women wearing hijabs—traditional Muslim head coverings—have been targeted, Obama told the crowd.
“We’ve seen children bullied; we’ve seen mosques vandalized,” the president continued.
The president put the onus on Americans of all religions to stand up against hate.
Obama appeared to be referencing comments made by Republican presidential hopefuls, such as Donald Trump, who called for a ban of all Muslims entering the US. Another candidate, Jeb Bush, said all Syrian refugees seeking to come to the US should undergo a religious test before entering.
The national Muslim advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said in December that there had been more attacks against mosques in 2015 than they’ve ever previously recorded.
Muslim Americans were once again viewed as suspicious following the horrific attacks in Paris that killed 130 and the shooting in San Bernardino by a Muslim couple that killed 14 and injured 22.
“You’ve seen too often people conflating the horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith,” Obama said.
The president said the far majority of Muslims around the world are peace-loving and blamed a small fraction for perverting a religion followed by 1.6 billion people worldwide in order to justify their violence and land grabs that have further destabilized regions in the Middle East and Africa.
Obama sought to allay concerns of many Muslim Americans, especially parents, who’ve been forced to have tough discussions with their children about how they fit into the fabric of American society. One mother wrote to the president and said her heart “cries every night” thinking about how her daughter might be treated at school.
In letters and in direct talks with Obama, Muslim Americans shared deep-felt beliefs that they are being treated like second-class citizens.
“The notion that they would be filled with doubt, questioning their place in this great country of ours…that’s not who we are,” Obama said of Muslim Americans. “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.”
Obama’s visit will no doubt spark criticism. Surprisingly, he made a not-so-veiled dig at detractors who claim Obama is a closet Muslim by invoking similar attacks thrust against Thomas Jefferson, who along with John Adams, owned a Koran.
“I’m in good company,” he said, drawing laughs.
While some may assail Obama from visiting a mosque because of a perceived threat its congregants pose, he isn’t the first modern day US president to do so. The Democratic president’s Republican predecessor made a similar plea after deadlier terror attacks.
President George W. Bush, six days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, paid a visit to the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. It was during that meeting with Islamic leaders that Bush famously said, “Islam is peace.”
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Bush said that day. “That’s not what Islam is all about.”
“Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
Obama’s relationship with the Muslim community is a complicated one.
While he has repeatedly decried attacks against Muslims, Obama has also been at the helm of ever expanding drone wars that have killed terror suspects but also innocent civilians living in Muslim-dominated countries.
It’s also the Obama administration that has promoted a controversial community-driven approach to fighting radical ideology called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). When the White House hosted a summit on the topic last March, human rights groups and Muslim advocacy organizations criticized it for essentially reinforcing the stereotype that Muslim communities should be under constant suspicion.
The human rights groups wondered why the supposed extremism summit focused on Muslims and did not address attacks by right wing extremists. Since 9/11, right wing extremists in the US have killed 48 people and 45 have been slain by Muslim extremists, according to the New America Foundation.
“CVE’s focus on American Muslim communities and communities presumed to be Muslim stigmatizes them as inherently suspect,” the groups wrote in a joint letter to Obama three months before the summit. “It sets American Muslims apart from their neighbors and singles them out for monitoring based on faith, race and ethnicity.”
On Wednesday, Obama did not shy away from acknowledging that some Muslims commit atrocities—which he blamed partly on groups like al Qaeda and the self-declared Islamic State, who use a warped ideology and falsely claim that the US is at war with Islam to bolster their ranks.
Obama also called on the media—the TV and film industry, in particular—to feature Muslims in non-terror roles, arguing that most Americans’ views of Muslims are shaped not by direct interaction with Muslims but by what they see on the news and in entertainment.
“An attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths,” Obama said. “And when any religious group is targeted we all have a responsibility to speak up.”