Last April, someone called up the school operated by the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a nearly half-century-old mosque and community center in Catonsville, in Baltimore County, Maryland. More than 350 kids attend the society’s primary school, according to its website. The caller must have seemed innocuous enough in asking, “What time do you close?” After getting the answer, however, the caller’s ill intent became clear. “It’s the perfect time to bomb the bus,” the person reportedly said. Less than a week later, another call to the society threatened to “spill Muslim blood.”
Wednesday afternoon, President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore—the very target of these threats—and offered wide-ranging remarks that sought to show the breadth of Muslim-American life and, at the same time, call for aid in beating back the threat of extremist terrorism. If one message stood out, however, it was Obama’s exhortation to young American Muslims—whose concerns about discrimination and harassment he had repeatedly cited—to be proud of their dual identities, that precisely this dynamic in their lives made them as American as apple pie.
“Today, there are voices in this world, particularly over the Internet, who are constantly claiming that you have to choose between your identities—as a Muslim, for example, or an American,” Obama said. “Do not believe them. If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as president of the United States: You fit in here—right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”
Obama’s remarks were a stunning—if overdue—rebuke to the dark forces that have plagued our national discourse, giving rise to increasingly mainstream bigotry. He chided the “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country”—a clear shot at virtually the entire Republican presidential field, which has embraced anti-Muslim hatred either as a matter of ideology or political utility. He took on the “distorted media portrayals in TV or film,” something Muslims and those of Muslim extraction grouse about frequently but rarely hear aired in major fora, let alone in a presidential speech.
“So the first thing I want to say is two words that Muslim Americans don’t hear often enough—and that is, thank you,” Obama said. “Thank you for serving your community. Thank you for lifting up the lives of your neighbors, and for helping keep us strong and united as one American family.”
He went on to lambast the double threat faced by Muslims in America, that not only must they fear the terrorism that (infrequently) targets their country, but “that as Muslim Americans, you also have another concern—and that is your entire community so often is targeted or blamed for the violent acts of the very few.” He went to great lengths to note that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide lead entirely peaceful lives and follow a peaceful faith. He readily acknowledged that “it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam”—specifically citing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as well as Al Qaeda and other groups that “misuse God’s name.”
But here is where things got tricky for Obama: He noted, as he has before, that “Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies that are trying to penetrate within Muslim communities”—then acknowledged that they already had (“Here at this mosque, and across our country and around the world, Muslim leaders are roundly and repeatedly and consistently condemning terrorism”), even noting that sometimes the burden “doesn’t feel fair.”
He went on to say that “engagement with Muslim-American communities must never be a cover for surveillance.” And yet that was exactly what it was when the New York Police Department demanded (and often received) cooperation from the metro area’s Muslim communities—then turned around and, as the Associated Press reported in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series, spied on them, in some cases based on nothing more than their faith. Despite his remarks Wednesday, the Obama administration failed—refused, even—to condemn the spying, which it had helped fund through grants that were used to defray costs of the program. One top administration official, John Brennan, then Obama’s counterterrorism czar and now his CIA head, even praised the NYPD’s blatantly bigoted tactics. (Upon assuming office, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio disbanded the unit responsible for the spying, and last month the city settled a lawsuit over it by agreeing to impose restrictions and civilian checks on the department’s counterterrorism activities.)
Neither did Obama mention Washington’s continued Forever War, a borderless military undertaking that seems, nonetheless, to affect only Muslim countries. Obama mentioned, briefly, the hashtag campaign joined by many military service members and veterans pledging to protect 8-year-old Sofia Yassini, a Muslim-American child who became afraid that sometime GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s Islamophobic policy proposals threatened her safety. “Think of our men and women in uniform,” Obama said Wednesday, in a show of Muslim Americans’ place in our national society, “who, when they heard that a little girl was afraid because she’s a Muslim, sent her a message—’I Will Protect You.’” The tale is a heartwarming anecdote, but it will be of little comfort to the 21 Muslim children in Yemen who reportedly perished in a drone strike launched by US service members acting on Obama’s orders. Those Muslim children—and countless and uncounted more like them—weren’t even lucky enough to have the Obama administration explain the circumstances of their deaths; unlike the two non-Muslim Westerners accidentally killed in a drone strike, most civilian deaths in American targeted killings abroad—the vast majority of them Muslims—go unaccounted for by the Obama administration.
And yet, despite these issues, the speech must be viewed as a small victory for justice amid the growing crisis of anti-Muslim invective in American politics. Indeed, Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore was attacked by all the usual purveyors of Islamophobia on the right—the same pundits and activists who have spurred the mainstream of the Republican Party to embrace its hateful present-day positions.
Obama has made small outreaches to the Muslim-American community over the years—most recently as a rebuke to bigotry with his invitation to Ahmed Mohamed, the young inventor who was perp-walked from his school on suspicion of building a bomb that was really just a clock—but had yet to visit an American mosque as a sitting president. With his visit to Baltimore, Obama became just the third president to make such a gesture, following in the footsteps of Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush.
“We are one American family,” Obama said toward the end of his remarks. “We will rise and fall together. It won’t always be easy. There will be times where our worst impulses are given voice. But I believe that ultimately, our best voices will win out. And that gives me confidence and faith in the future.” His speech and his choice of venue gave heft to those sentiments. But “belief” and “faith in the future” aren’t nearly enough.
“There is a battle of hearts and minds that takes place—that is taking place right now, and American Muslims are better positioned than anybody to show that it is possible to be faithful to Islam and to be part of a pluralistic society,” Obama said in Baltimore, referring to the “burden” of peace-loving Muslims, who continually have to demonstrate their good intentions amid the scourge of extremist terrorism. That statement might as well apply to the battle for the hearts and minds of those Americans in thrall to anti-Muslim ideologies, but it will take more than just American Muslims’ example to sway them, and it will take more than just the leadership on display in a single presidential speech.