With increased stereotyping and hatred towards Muslims around the world, President Obama advocated religious tolerance and unity. During his first ever visit to a mosque in the United States on February 3, President Barack Obama joined Muslim Americans from around the nation at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Maryland, and said: “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 noted that violence against the Muslim American and Sikh American communities has surged in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks last November – in which extremists affiliated with the Islamic State killed 183 people – and the San Bernardino shootings in December, when a Muslim American couple killed 14 people at a rehabilitation center for handicapped people.
“I know that in Muslim communities across our country, this is a time of concern and, frankly, a time of some fear. Like all Americans, you’re worried about the threat of terrorism,” said the president, who removed his shoes before entering the mosque, in deference to Islamic custom. “But on top of that, as Muslim Americans, you also have another concern – that your entire community so often is targeted or blamed for the violent acts of the very few,” he said.
“I’ve had people write to me and say, ‘I feel like I’m a second-class citizen.’ I’ve had mothers write and say, ‘my heart cries every night,’ thinking about how her daughter might be treated at school. A girl from Ohio, 13 years old, told me, ‘I’m scared.’ A girl from Texas signed her letter ‘a confused 14-year-old trying to find her place in the world,’” said Obama.
“These are children just like mine. And the notion that they would be filled with doubt and questioning their places in this great country of ours at a time when they’ve got enough to worry about — it’s hard being a teenager already — that’s not who we are.”
Obama stated that hate crimes must be reported and punished. He encouraged the community to speak out against hateful rhetoric and violence against any faith, and to reject religious extremism.
The president rejected the notion that America is ‘at war with Islam’, stating: “We can’t be at war with any other religion, because the world’s religions are a part of the very fabric of the United States, our national character. And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values. It alienates Muslim Americans.”
Muhammed Ahmed Chaudhry, CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and a volunteer with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, joined Obama on his visit to the Baltimore mosque. Chaudhry is reported to have told the media that after the visit that he had been invited to the White House for dinner with the president last year and had encouraged him to visit a mosque.
Chaudhry said it was heartwarming to see the president remove his shoes before entering the mosque. “It showed respect and true leadership,” he said. The visit to the mosque was a great symbolic way for the president to highlight the Muslim American community’s positive contributions to the U.S.
According to reports, half of Americans say the next president should be careful not to criticize Islam as a whole when speaking about Islamic extremists, while four-in-ten want the next president to speak bluntly about Islamic extremists even if the statements are critical of Islam as a whole. A new Pew Research Center survey finds that blunt talk is preferred by two-thirds of Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party (65%), while seven-in-ten Democrats and independents who lean Democratic express the opposite view, saying the next president should speak carefully about Islamic extremism so as not to criticize Islam as a whole.
While many Americans are concerned about Islamic extremism, the new survey shows that most people think the problem with violence committed in the name of religion is people rather than with religion per se. Indeed, fully two-thirds of Americans say the bigger problem is that some violent people use religion to justify their actions (68%). Only about a fifth (22%) say the bigger problem is that the teachings of some religions promote violence.
Obama’s call for tolerance and unity have been criticized by some. Trump chided Obama for the mosque visit. “He can go to lots of places. I don’t know, maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told Fox News. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio also lashed out against Obama’s mosque visit, criticizing the president for “pitting people against each other.”
“He’s basically saying that America is discriminating against Muslims,” said Rubio during a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, acknowledging that there was discrimination, but radical Islam is a bigger threat.
In fact, Obama’s words, in fact, bore a close resemblance to President George W. Bush’s remarks after 9/11, when he called Islam a religion of peace and criticized discrimination and attacks against American Muslims. Why were those 2001 comments by a Republican president welcomed, while Obama’s very similar comments today were not? Part of it is surely partisanship. But Americans have also become less and less accepting of Islam. When PRRI asked the same question in 2011, for example, just 47 percent of Americans agreed that Islam was incompatible with American values, and 48 percent disagreed.
“Three weeks after 9/11, an ABC News poll found that Americans had a more favorable view of Islam than unfavorable, 47 percent to 39 percent,” notes Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution. “But a decade later, the picture changed dramatically. A poll I conducted in April 2011 showed that 61 percent of Americans expressed unfavorable views of Islam, while only 33 percent expressed favorable views.”
“The president’s first visit to an American mosque is a significant step in the right direction and will hopefully encourage our nation’s political and religious leaders to join him in pushing back against rising Islamophobia,” said Council on American Islamic Relations Maryland outreach manager Zainab Chaudry, who was invited to the president’s visit to the mosque.
“We welcome President Obama’s historic visit and applaud his remarks both rejecting anti-Muslim rhetoric and reminding our fellow Americans about Islam’s long history in our nation and about constitutional protections guaranteeing religious freedom,” said CAIR national executive director Nihad Awad.
The historic 45-minute speech at a large, suburban Baltimore mosque was attended by some of the country’s most prominent Muslims. In what appeared to be a counter to the rise in Islamophobia, Obama celebrated the long history of Muslim achievement in American life from sports to architecture and described Muslims as Cub Scouts, soldiers and parents, pointing out the mother of the pre-med college student who introduced him at the podium.
Obama’s visit is likely to be compared with a landmark speech to the Islamic world early in his presidency. At Cairo University, Obama in 2009 called for a “new beginning” between the Islamic world and the United States, noting shared interests on issues such as extremism but also acknowledging mistakes made over centuries by all societies in the name of culture and faith.