By Gardiner Harris
President Obama on Wednesday embraced Muslims in the United States as part of “one American family” and implicitly criticized the Republican presidential candidates in a warning to citizens to not be “bystanders to bigotry.”
In a visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, his first to a mosque in the United States as president, Mr. Obama recited phrases from the Quran and praised American Muslims as a crucial part of America’s history and vital to the nation’s future.
“And so if we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths,” Mr. Obama said.
Although Mr. Obama never mentioned Republican presidential candidates like Donald J. Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, the targets in his remarks were clear. “We have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion,” he said.
The speech served as a bookend to a 2009 address Mr. Obama delivered at Cairo University, where he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” In Baltimore, the president did not talk about intractable international conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and focused instead on the more prosaic reality of vandalized mosques and bullied American Muslim children.
“These children are just like mine,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
Although President George W. Bush visited a mosque in Washington within six days of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to reassure American Muslims, Mr. Obama, a Christian, brushed aside requests for a visit for years in part because 43 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Americans think he is a Muslim, according to a CNN/ORC poll last September. Aides feared a mosque visit would feed into that perception.
But in the final year of his presidency, Mr. Obama has lost much of his reticence in addressing issues like race, addiction and religion, often in very personal terms. Administration officials said there had been little internal debate about Mr. Obama visiting an American mosque since talk about it began at the White House last fall.
In an aside that drew considerable laughter, Mr. Obama told the crowd at the mosque that controversy over a president’s religion is not new. “By the way, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim — so I was not the first,” he said, adding: “I’m in good company.”
For Mr. Obama, the remarks were also an admission of how little progress has been made since the speech in Cairo, where he called for “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.” In his speech on Wednesday, he suggested that his hopes for reconciliation had been dashed, but he called on all Americans to stick by the country’s founding ideals.
Muslims in the audience hailed the address.
“I think it was one of the best speeches he’s ever given,” said Representative André Carson, an Indiana Democrat. Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said the speech “hit me in the heart” and was a vital antidote to growing intolerance.
“I have a 19-year-old daughter who is a Muslim and wants to contribute to her nation, and it bugs me that someone who says he wants to be president would want to exclude her,” Mr. Ellison said.
But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the country’s oldest and largest pro-Israel organizations, denounced Mr. Obama for visiting a mosque whose leaders, Mr. Klein said, have among other issues criticized Israeli military actions. “Going to such a mosque only encourages radical Muslims to harm Americans,” Mr. Klein said.
White House and Islamic Society of Baltimore officials did not respond to Mr. Klein’s criticism. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that “any mosque would have been attacked similarly.”
Concerns about Muslims and Syrian refugees in the United States grew after terrorist attacks in Paris in November claimed the lives of 130 people and after a mass shooting by a husband-and-wife team in San Bernardino, Calif., in December left 14 people dead and 22 seriously wounded.
Since then, attacks on American Muslims and mosques have spiked, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. At a meeting at the White House last month, prominent American Muslims pleaded with senior administration officials to have the president visit a mosque in the hope of stemming such attacks.
A portion of Mr. Obama’s speech in Baltimore was a kind of primer, in which he offered “some basic facts” on Islam and the United States that he said the news media had failed to communicate.
Among those facts: Islam is a religion of peace. Some of the earliest Americans were Muslim. Jefferson and other founding fathers sought to guarantee the freedom of Muslims to worship. Muslims are everywhere in American society as doctors, teachers, soldiers and sports stars.
Mr. Obama said that too many Americans heard about Islam only after terrorist attacks, and that this must change. “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security,” he said. “It’s not that hard to do. There was a time when there were no black people on television.”
Mr. Obama also said that anyone who suggested that the United States was at war with Islam not only legitimized such groups as the Islamic State but also played into their hands. “That kind of mind-set helps our enemies,” he said. “It helps our enemies recruit. It makes us all less safe.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential scholar, likened Mr. Obama’s visit and warnings against anti-Muslim language to warnings made by two other presidents at the end of their terms.
“George Washington warned his countrymen against the increasing power of factions which kindle animosity of one against the other, while Eisenhower warned against the unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex,” she wrote in an email.
Mr. Obama ended his speech by reminding Muslim Americans, “You are not alone, your fellow Americans stand with you.” And he reminded others that the country’s diversity “is not a weakness that is one of our greatest strengths.”
“We are one American family,” he said. “We will rise and fall together.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.