In his first visit to a mosque as president on Wednesday, Barack Obama condemned surging Islamophobia on the right and sought to assuage fears of persecution in the American Muslim community. His speech, delivered at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, drew attention to the long history of Islam in the United States and reassured American Muslims that they are an integral part of the country’s present and future.
“This is a struggle between the peace-loving, overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world and a radical, tiny minority. And ultimately, I’m confident that the overwhelming majority will win that battle,” said the president. “Muslims will decide the future of your faith.”
Obama was calm and collected, showcasing the qualities that delight his supporters. Unlike the Republican Party’s presidential contenders, he did not encourage fear, but sought to outline what Muslims and non-Muslims in this country can do together. While he didn’t put the full onus on Muslims to combat religious extremism in their community, he said they are best situated to take a leading role in the fight. But non-Muslim Americans also had a responsibility to reject hatred and fear-mongering.
“We can’t be bystanders to bigotry,” Obama said. “And together, we’ve got to show that America truly protects all faiths.”
Obama articulated his own understanding of the concerns of the American Muslim community as well. “Some of them are parents,” he said, speaking of Muslim-Americans with whom he had met, “and they talked about how their children were asking: ‘Are we going to be forced out of the country, or, are we going to be rounded up? Why do people treat us like that?’ Conversations that you shouldn’t have to have with children — not in this country. Not at this moment,” he said.
Obama’s steadfastness in defending Muslims from bigotry and racism has reassured American Muslims in a time of deep anxiety. Reports of hate crimes have shot up following the San Bernardino shootings and the attacks in Paris. Republican presidential candidates promote Islamophobic and racist views of Muslims. Armed “protesters,” overly zealous in exercising their First and Second Amendment rights, fan the flames of incitement by protesting outside mosques.
By giving a speech in a mosque, Obama revealed that Islamic centers are like any other place of worship in America. “Think of your own church, or synagogue, or temple, and a mosque like this will be very familiar. This is where families come to worship and express their love for God and each other,” he said. “There’s a school where teachers open young minds. Kids play baseball and football and basketball — boys and girls — I hear they’re pretty good. Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts meet, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance here.”
According to Obama, there is no doubting Islam’s compatibility with American values, even as he referred to his own Christian faith. He even poked fun at continuously unfounded accusations that he’s secretly Muslim, saying Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to foment opposition to him by spreading rumors that the Virginian president was a Muslim, too.
Obama discussed terrorism at length as a concern to all Americans, Muslim or not. Many Muslims feel they have been asked to bear an unfair burden to condemn attacks by ISIS and other groups, while the same is not required of white Americans when white men shoot up churches or abortion clinics. According to the FBI, 94 percent of domestic terrorism incidents have not involved Muslims.
At a time when Donald Trump and his followers demand exclusion of Muslims from the U.S. to combat terrorism, fomenting open religious and ethnic bigotry, Obama’s speech offered a strong message of inclusion. To Obama, Islam is as American as apple pie, telling Muslims: “If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”
If there ever was a moment when Muslims in America found their very own Defender of the Faith, they found him today — speaking plainly at a mosque in Baltimore.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama greets students after his remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Maryland February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst