President Barack Obama issued a firm rebuke against the rising tide of Islamophobia on Wednesday, delivering a lengthy speech at a mosque that lifted up the contributions of Muslim Americans and the need for all U.S. citizens to dedicate themselves to religious tolerance.
Obama delivered his address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore — his first visit to a U.S. mosque during his term as president — before a diverse crowd of Muslims that included faith leaders, members of the military, and Muslim congressmen Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Andre Carson (D-IN). The sometimes freewheeling speech, which appeared to be delivered from notes instead of teleprompters, constituted a rejection of the rash of anti-Islam rhetoric voiced by GOP candidates — especially Donald Trump — as well as the unsettling rise of anti-Islam incidents enacted against Muslim Americans across the country.
It showed the president struggling to appeal to two very different audiences, seeking to affirm Muslim Americans and assuage the fears of non-Muslims who view Islam as a potential threat. For example, he began his remarks by ticking off Islam facts he said the average non-Muslim American might be unfamiliar with, such as Thomas Jefferson’s conciliatory approach to Islam, how Muslims have lived and worshipped in the United States for centuries, and how “for more than 1000 years, people have been attracted to Islam’s message of peace.”
“‘Whoever wants to enter paradise…let him treat people the way he would love to be treated,’” Obama said, quoting the prophet Muhammad. “For Christians like myself, I’m assuming that sounds familiar.”
The Commander in Chief, who met with a slate of young Muslim leaders before the speech, also mentioned the important role of Muslim Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces and police force, and name-checked a Muslim fencer in the audience slated to represent the United States in the Olympics later the year.
“The first thing I want to say is two words that Muslim Americans don’t hear often enough — and that is, thank you. Thank you for serving your community,” Obama said. He later asked several Muslim service members in attendance to rise and be recognized, saying, “Muslims are some of the most resilient and patriotic Americans you’ll ever meet.”
Obama then eased into the core of his speech, a thinly-veiled critique of those who deride Islam for political gain or imply that terrorists who claim the faith are somehow representative of all Muslims. He noted that the anti-Islam rhetoric that has pockmarked this election season — often spouted from the mouths of conservatives who champion religious freedom as a important issue — “has no place in our country.”
“We’re one American family, and when any one of our family starts to feel separate…it tears the very fabric of our nation,” Obama said. “If we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths.”
The president also had harsh words for militant extremists such as ISIS who try to claim Islam as their inspiration for heinous acts, calling them “a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam.”
“I refuse to give them that legitimacy. We must never give them that legitimacy,” Obama said, repeating the position of millions of Muslims who argue that ISIS does not represent Islam. “We can’t suggest that Islam is the root of the problem. That betrays our values.”
“Christians, Jews, Muslims, we’re all under our faiths descendants of Abraham,” he said.
The president’s speech was not completely devoid of criticism for the Muslim community, however. When discussing the rise of extremism, Obama said the Muslim community has a “responsibility” to denounce terrorist attacks — something Muslims in the United States and abroad have been doing for some time.
“Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies,” he said. “Those voices are there, we just have to amplify them more.”
He also appeared to waffle back and forth between ideological camps when discussing national security issues, calling on Muslims to denounce the attacks on Christians and Jews in the Middle East while also acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of those killed by groups such as ISIS are themselves Muslim. He condemned racial and religious profiling, something his own administration continues to utilize as part of anti-terrorism measures, saying, “We can’t give in to profiling entire groups of people…There is no one profile for terrorists.”
But Obama eventually pivoted back to a welcoming message, making a direct appeal to America’s Muslim youth and asking Muslim communities to be “partners” in state and federal campaigns to combat militant groups that try to recruit young followers of Islam.
“If you’re ever wondering if you fit in here [as Muslim youth], let me say it as President of the United States: You fit in here!” Obama said. “I want every Muslim American to remember: you are not alone. Your fellow Americans stand with you.”
The president praised the diversity that Muslim Americans bring to the country, noting, “After more than 200 years…the patchwork quilt that is America — that is not a weakness, that is our greatest strength.” Indeed, Obama concluded his speech with a rhetorical flourish that encapsulated this ideal of a blended America, fusing a traditional Muslim saying with one uttered by any number of America’s traditionally Christian presidents.
“May God’s peace be upon you…And may God bless the United States of America,” he said.