Obama and the mosque
Stoked by ugly rhetoric from the presidential campaign trail, anti- Muslim sentiment in the United States is running so high that US President Barack Obama felt compelled to make his first visit to a US mosque and speak up for the country’s Muslims.
Sadly, that’s not likely to change the minds of Americans who conflate Islam and terrorism.
Though Muslims are a religious minority, they number in the millions in the United States. According to a string of polls over several years, more than one-third of adult Americans asked said that Islam is more prone to encourage violence than other religions. A poll released in January by the Pew Research Center found that 14% said that about half the US Muslim population is anti-American.
In the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, leading candidates have been trying to exploit such views to win votes.
Which is why Obama condemned “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that have no place in our country” in a February 3rd speech at a Baltimore mosque. There was no need to elaborate. Pointing to the terrorist attacks in Paris and California, billionaire businessman Donald Trump, the Republican front runner, made headlines around the world by calling for a ban on Muslims travelling to the United States.
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and presidential candidate, has described Islam as incompatible with the US Constitution and held that, therefore, no Muslim should be president.
Not so, Obama said at the Baltimore mosque: “When enshrining the freedom of religion in our constitution and our Bill of Rights, our founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.”
But facts matter little on a subject as controversial as Islam and Obama’s plea for tolerance did little to convince Islamophobes that Muslims in the United States are full-fledged members of “one American family”, as he put it.
Playing to the 43% of Republicans who, according to polls, say Obama is a Muslim, Trump remarked that the president had chosen to go to a mosque because “maybe he feels comfortable there”. Trump has long questioned Obama’s religion and was a leading voice of the “birther movement” of Americans who insist the president was born in Kenya.
In a bizarre leap of logic, US Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who had been gaining in Republican presidential polls, saw the visit to the mosque as evidence that the president was dividing the country along “religious lines”.
Obama’s speech drew praise from Muslim community leaders and editorials in mainstream newspapers. Even the Wall Street Journal, generally not a fan of the Democratic president, described it as “one of Mr Obama’s best attempts to fulfil the promise he made in 2008 to promote racial and political comity”.
But there have also been pointed questions from American Muslims as to why Obama waited until his final year in office to visit a mosque at home. The president has visited mosques abroad — in Indonesia and Egypt — where he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world: one based on mutual interest and mutual respect”.
For years he shrugged off suggestions to visit a mosque in America, apparently because he feared that would give currency to the claims from conservative detractors that he is a Muslim, a perception that could have dimmed his prospects for re-election in 2012. Now that he is on the final stretch of his presidency, he is tackling sensitive issues — from race to religion — more forcefully than before.
In his address to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Obama made a point that deserves wider debate: most Americans have never met a Muslim (the community accounts for about 1% of the population) and only hear about Muslims and Islam from news accounts of terrorist attacks.
That gives a distorted impression and spurs the stubborn tendency to blame an entire community for the violent acts of a very few.