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.”