Obama Says All Are God's Children in First Visit to U.S. Mosque

  • Muslim leaders say presidential visit shows solidarity
  • Arson, harassment of Muslims increased after terror attacks

Obama: This Is a Time of Concern, Time of Some Fear

President Barack Obama extolled the contributions of Muslim Americans to society, including sacrifices by Muslim service members, while acknowledging that a fringe of the faith uses a "perverted version of Islam" to justify terrorism in his first visit to a U.S. mosque.

Obama’s speech was intended as a deliberate rebuke to Republican presidential candidates who, White House aides say, have stoked Islamophobia and bigotry in the aftermath of Islamic State-inspired terror attacks across the globe. He drew on U.S. history, including remarks by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others sympathetic to Islam, and quoted from the Koran to argue that the faith is not antithetical to democracy and is ingrained in the nation’s culture.

"At a time when others are trying to divide us along the lines of religion or sect we have to reaffirm that most fundamental of truths: we are all God’s children," Obama said at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. "We are all born equal, with dignity. Mere tolerance of different religions is not enough. Our faiths summon us to embrace our common humanity. ’Oh mankind,’ the Koran teaches, ’we have made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.’"

Gesture of Solidarity

Muslim leaders say that the trip represents an important symbolic gesture of solidarity at a time when incidents of anti-Muslim prejudice are on the rise. But the White House also saw the visit as an opportunity to draw a sharp leadership contrast with a Republican presidential field that has demonstrated what Obama’s aides consider an alarming and offensive eagerness to marginalize Muslim Americans.

“Recently we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in a democratic nation," Obama said in his remarks, which lasted for almost an hour.

Donald Trump, who has led Republican primary polls for much of the campaign, has proposed a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration in response to terror attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 and San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2. Jeb Bush has said the U.S. should focus on admitting refugees from Syria’s civil war who could prove they were Christian. And Ted Cruz, the victor in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, has said he "understood" Trump’s proposal but favored his own ban on refugee immigration from countries where Islamic State and al-Qaeda control territory.

Threat to U.S.

Cruz and other Republicans have criticized Obama for “political correctness” in refusing to describe the threat to the U.S. as coming from “radical Islamic terrorists.”

Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former senior adviser, said in an e-mail that the president’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore “sends a powerful signal that the Islamophobia coming out of the Republican primary is a minority, not majority, opinion in this country.”

“While this has been a strain of thinking in the country since 9/11, it hasn’t been until this year that major mainstream political figures started publicly espousing anti-Muslim views,” Pfeiffer said.

Islamic leaders say Obama’s visit is welcome and necessary. Several U.S. mosques were the target of arson attacks following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. High-profile incidents including the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Texas boy detained after a homemade clock he brought to school was mistaken for a bomb, have only deepened their concern that anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise.

‘I’m Scared’

"I’ve had people write to me and say, ‘I feel like I’m a second-class citizen,’" Obama said. "A girl from Ohio, 13 years old, told me, ‘I’m scared.’"

Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal and educational advocacy group based in Oakland, California, said she pushed for Obama to visit a mosque during a December meeting with top White House officials, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Khera’s organization has tracked at least 70 anti-Muslim hate crimes since Paris, she said.

"I think he recognizes how dangerous it’s gotten and frankly how embarrassing it’s gotten, the kind of rhetoric we’ve seen," Khera, a former Senate Democratic aide, said in an interview.

Taha Tawil, an Iowa imam who leads the Mother Mosque, the first permanent U.S. structure built specifically as a mosque, said Muslims “are scared” and that Muslim children suffer harassment in schools. Tawil invited Donald Trump to visit his mosque after his call for a ban on Muslim immigration.

"Whoever is feeding this fear in the hearts of the public needs to stop," Tawil said. "I think a visit of the president to a mosque -- that gives a boost to the Muslim community, to bring them back to life, show that they still are citizens of the country. Trump and others try to disunite us."

Refugee Suspicions

Obama’s denunciations of anti-Muslim rhetoric began in earnest when the House moved in November to pass a bill to suspend the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S. Republicans, joined by some Democrats, said a pause would allow the government to improve screening of refugee applicants for people with links to terror groups. The White House said the refugee program was designed to help people left most vulnerable by regional conflicts, and that those admitted underwent the most rigorous screening of any travelers visiting the U.S.

The president’s efforts have intensified in recent weeks, including explicit criticism in January’s State of the Union address.

"When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is," Obama said. "It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country."

He again denounced religious bigotry during an event at the Israeli embassy and in remarks to House Democrats last week and during a Dec. 9 visit to Capitol Hill to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. Wednesday’s mosque visit will amplify his message.

"These are children just like mine, and the notion that they would be filled with doubt and questioning their place 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 said.

"You are Muslim and American," he told members of the mosque.

‘Perverted Version’

At the same time, Obama acknowledged that "a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted version of Islam."

"This is the truth. They are not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name. We’ve seen it before across faiths," Obama said. "But right now there is an organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic tenets and twists them" to justify terrorism, he said.

"Muslims will decide the direction of your faith, and I’m confident in the direction it will go," he said.

Americans more broadly must agree that "an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths" and "reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias and target people because of religion," Obama said.

Political Leeway

Obama enjoys considerably more political leeway in his final year in office than earlier in his term. Visiting a mosque before his 2012 re-election would have been almost unthinkable, at a time when Obama was forced to combat inaccurate stories that he was secretly a Muslim and wasn’t born in the United States.

In fact, a CNN/ORC International poll conducted in September found that 29 percent of Americans still believe Obama is a Muslim. Only about four in ten correctly identified his faith as Protestant.

"Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting that he was a Muslim. So I was not the first," Obama said, to laughter. "It’s true, look it up. I’m in good company."

The president has repeatedly acknowledged less restraint as his second term draws to a close, and aides often cite his joke at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner that he maintains a "rhymes-with-bucket list."

By visiting a mosque, Obama may also muscle his way back into a news cycle now dominated by people competing to succeed him in office. In addition to the unique nature of the event, the mosque Obama visited was prominently featured in the first season of the popular “Serial” podcast. Adnan Syed, the teenager who is serving life plus 30 years for the killing in 1999 of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, attended the mosque with his parents.

"Whatever the intention behind it, I still commend him," Tawil said of Obama’s visit. "And whoever comes after him should be doing the same sort of thing."

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