In his historic first visit to a mosque since assuming office, President Obama on Wednesday pressed for tolerance toward the Muslim community, stressing that members are deeply interwoven with American values and society.
“We’re one American family and when any part of our family starts to feel separate or targeted, it tears at the very fabric of our nation,” Obama said Wednesday.
It was a powerful message to a nation scarred by horrific terror attacks in the past and torn over fears of radical violence in the future, the burden of which has been placed largely on the shoulders of the Muslim community. The president pledged to play a greater role in sharing the positive and uplifting stories of Muslim Americans.
“I want to start with two words Muslim Americans don’t hear often enough: thank you,” he said.
It was clear that Obama was speaking not just to the audience gathered at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, but also more broadly to an American public unfamiliar with the tenets of Islam. Running through the basics of Islamic values, Obama detailed the roots the religion has in America and highlighted the accomplishments that Muslims continue to contribute to society.
The address was a clear rebuke of the harsh anti-Islam rhetoric that has escalated in recent months, stoked in part by a divisive political climate that has led to policies that actively discriminate against Muslims.
“Recently, we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country,” Obama said.
The president is no stranger to heated political discourse that carries subtle racialized undertones. A recent poll found that 29% of Americans question whether Obama is in fact a Christian while another 13% said they doubt he was born in the United States. Obama on Wednesday poked fun at the conspiracy theories, saying he is not alone in being a target for political opponents.
“By the way, opponents of Thomas Jefferson tried to stir things up by suggesting that he’s Muslim, so I’m not the first,” Obama said with a smirk.
The president took other subtle jabs at critics who fault him for refusing to offer a blanket condemnation of “radical Islam.” Stressing that terror groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria should not be conflated with Islam, Obama said he would not give into his detractors by blaming the religion itself for the acts of terror groups.
“I refuse to give them legitimacy. We must not give them legitimacy,” Obama said. “They’re not defending Islam.”
Obama implored Americans of all faiths to play an active role in defending religious freedom and not be “bystanders to bigotry.” And at one point, he spoke directly to young people, affirming to them that “you are not Muslim or American, you are Muslim and American.”
Obama cast blame on the entertainment industry for perpetuating negative stereotypes that cast Muslims in roles linked to storylines of terror.
“Our television shows should have some Muslim characters who are unrelated to national security,” Obama said. ”It’s not that hard to do!”