It was long overdue, but Barack Obama picked a very important moment to visit a U.S. mosque for the first time during his presidency.
The Dec. 2 bloodbath in San Bernardino, perpetrated by a couple who were sucked into radical Islam, rekindled anti-Muslim sentiment in America. Republican presidential candidates, especially Donald Trump, have added fuel to the fire.
Unsurprisingly, there has been an uptick in violence aimed at Muslims, including a Molotov cocktail thrown at a mosque in Tracy. There have been numerous incidents of vandalism and bullying.
During his 45-minute speech Wednesday at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Obama made the essential points: America was founded on the principles of religious freedom and tolerance. Muslims are just as much a part of America as Christians, Jews and people of other faiths, or no religion at all. American Muslims are active in every walk of life and have served with distinction defending our country.
“You’re part of America, too,” the president told his audience, which included two members of Congress and other prominent Muslims. “You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American.”
And we must not confuse the acts of a “radical, tiny minority” with an entire religion. “Since 9/11 and more recently, since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, you’ve seen too often people conflating the horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith,” Obama said.
It’s much easier for Obama to preach religious unity at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, as he did again Thursday.
His mosque visit was more complicated. It turns out, according to the Baltimore Sun, that one man who worshipped at the mosque pleaded guilty to helping send money that funded an al-Qaida hotel bombing in Indonesia and is now at the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay that Obama wants to close.
But targeting Muslims with suspicion and discrimination is counterproductive. As the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, Benjamin Wagner, pointed out in a recent Viewpoints article, the cooperation of American Muslims is key to spotting and stopping potential homegrown terrorists. And ugly rhetoric makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, to rally the coalition of Muslim nations in the Middle East that we need to defeat the Islamic State.
Some criticize Obama for waiting until his final year in office to visit a mosque. They question whether his reluctance stems from the false impression that he’s Muslim, though he’s Christian.
It’s far more significant that the president loudly and visibly told American Muslims that this is their country, too.