On Sunday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation in the wake of the tragic San Bernardino killings — a speech that included one of his most powerful rebukes of Islamophobia yet. But unlike many previous appeals to religious tolerance, the president’s call for an inclusive America was arguably geared towards achieving one immediate, specific goal: saving American lives.
While outlining his larger plan to defeat the militant group ISIS, also called ISIL — which the San Bernardino shooters claimed to support — Obama harshly condemned those who wish to discriminate against others based on their religion. Without naming names, the president spoke against the slew of politicians who have made anti-Muslim comments in recent months, and addressed the plight of Muslim Americans who are currently enduring violence — including shootings — as part of an ongoing Islamophobic backlash. The relevant sections are below, and worth reading in full:
Here’s what else we cannot do. We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world — including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology…
But just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL. Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes — and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.
Obama’s words weren’t just timely, they were almost certainly intentional; his speech was clearly targeted directly at those propagating the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Just two days before, Jerry Falwell Jr. delivered a chilling speech to Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college well known for producing and hosting some of America’s most influential conservative leaders. Speaking before a crowd of thousands, Falwell, who is president of the school, called for his students to begin carrying more guns, saying that if the victims of last week’s tragic San Bernardino shooting had been armed, they could have “end[ed] those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” He reached for his own firearm as he spoke, which he claimed was holstered to his back.
Studies have shown that condemnations of Islamophobia from high-ranking politicians can actually have a powerful — and potentially life-saving — impact on average citizens.
Other prominent conservatives — especially GOP presidential candidates — have also parroted anti-Muslim rhetoric over the past few months, with some ratcheting up the vitriol since the San Bernardino murders. Ben Carson abandoned his traditionally inclusive stance on other religions earlier this year by declaring that he could not support a Muslim president. Marco Rubio called for shutting down mosques and “any place…where radicals are being inspired.” Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush posited allowing Christian refugees from Syria into the country, but not Muslims. And just hours before President Obama’s speech, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump — who has previously entertained creating a registry for those who claim Islamic faith — advocated for explicitly profiling of Muslim Americans.
But even this bombast obscures a far more disturbing streak of hatred flaring up in communities across America. Since the attacks in Paris last month, U.S. Muslims all over the country have fallen victim to an unprecedented wave of Islamophobia, enduring more than 27 incidents of shootings, personal assaults, harassment, protests, and attacks on Islamic houses of worship — all with threats of more to come.
Despite this, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee blasted the president’s words just hours after his speech. Speaking in New York City during a fundraiser for a settlement in the occupied West Bank, Huckabee chided the president for protecting “the reputation of Islam.”
“I believe that the next president should never believe somehow that it is the job of the United States president as commander-in-chief to protect the reputation of Islam more than it is to protect the people of the United States of America from radical Islam,” he said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
When juxtaposed against this avalanche of anti-Islam sentiment, the president’s speech may seem like a simple gesture. Yet despite the claims of Huckabee and others, studies have shown that condemnations of Islamophobia from high-ranking politicians can actually have a powerful — and potentially life-saving — impact on average citizens, and can be crucial for maintaining domestic peace. ThinkProgress reported earlier this year on a new Pew Research Center study that showed a rapid increase in positive feelings about French Muslims after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a surprising and dramatic shift that also occurred in the United States after the September 11th attacks in 2001. While seemingly unexpected, Pew researcher Richard Wike speculated the shift in public opinion was caused in part by politicians and other leaders who rebuked anti-Islam messages.
The issue of Islamophobia doesn’t just have domestic repercussions.
“One of the potential reasons for this pattern is that in the days following the attacks [in France], you had widespread calls for national unity,” Wike told ThinkProgress at the time. “In 2001, [statements made by President George W. Bush] about how violent extremism does not represent Islam … that had an impact.”
Wike also pointed to a 2013 paper that tracked this phenomenon after the September 11 attacks. The author of the paper, Christopher Smith of Claremont University, ultimately concluded that the public’s sudden embrace of American Muslims was largely the of result rhetoric-driven efforts to combat Islamophobia, saying, “This counterintuitive outcome apparently resulted from a bipartisan effort by government and media to avert discrimination by framing Islam in a positive way.”
But the issue of Islamophobia doesn’t just have domestic repercussions. GOP candidates such as Rubio have already given voice to the idea that ISIS’s violence constitutes a “clash of civilizations,” a widely disputed claim that is nonetheless used to justify calling for a long, expensive war against violent extremists in Syria and Iraq.
But as Obama rightly noted, the combination of domestic Islamophobia in Europe and the United States and a full-on ground war in the Middle East is precisely what ISIS wants. As other other analysts have already pointed out, this creates a recipe for ISIS recruitment, and strengthens their cause.
Or, as the president put it:
We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield. ISIL fighters were part of the insurgency that we faced in Iraq, but they also know that if we occupy foreign lands, they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops and draining our resources, and using our presence to draw new recruits.
In other words, the president’s repudiation of Islamophobia isn’t just the repetition of a platitude about celebrating diversity. It’s also a necessary tool of good governance, geared towards saving the lives of Muslim Americans, non-Muslim Americans, and U.S. servicemen and women.