On February 3rd, 2016, President Obama visited a mosque, the Islāmic Society of Baltimore. This visit was part of the administration’s mission to promote religious tolerance, mainly in response to remarks on the GOP campaign trail, but also to come full circle and to reflect on the progress (or in some cases, progress not present) that he made since he urged at Cairo University back in 2009 to have “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.”
In the President’s arrival, one observer at the mosque remarked that he “swiftly removes his shoes and heads for the ablution stations in a suspiciously routine fashion.” Another observer, Tariq Ahmed, was surprised at his familiarity with the Qur’anic passages, saying “Before he started, he looked back and instructed us to straighten our lines… Shoulder to shoulder, pray every salat as if it’s your last. You never know when one of my drones can be off by 1-2 degrees.” Obama then recited the entire Surah Ya-Sin during the first half of the prayer.
During this stay, President Obama also made a speech. He remarked that many Americans never visited a mosque, but a mosque is like that of any of religious space: one that serves multiple purposes, is built out of American ingenuity and will, and should be thanked (something that Obama added that is not heard enough by Muslim Americans). He argued that Muslims made much more of the world than most Americans think: taking part in Henry Ford’s assembly line, designed the skyscrapers in Chicago, served in the U.S. military, and even preserved the knowledge of the Romans and Greeks back in the post-classical era of history. “They are some of the most resilient and patriotic people you’ll ever meet”, he said.
The President also mentioned the fears of Muslims by the media and political rhetoric and the attacks— both verbal and physical— on innocent Muslims following terror attacks, along with the rhetoric of the small population that twist the Islamic faith to justify terrorism. “It’s real, it’s there, it creates tension and pressure”, he said. He also argued that the distorted images distort the American minds and as a result, people mix beliefs of the faith with the acts of terrorism, which are conversations one shouldn’t have to have in the country: that of “feeling like a second class citizen” or “being a confused fourteen year old about my place in the world.”
Throughout the speech, he did provide a light of hope like that of the light shone on his podium. He offered some facts about Islam that he felt the media would otherwise avoid or misinterpret, such as that Islam comes from salaam, which means peace. He said that Islam is a religion of compassion, mercy, and justice. The president mentioned a line from the Qur’an, to which the audience applauded: “Mohammad said, ‘Those who want to enter peace, treat others the way he wants to be treated’”, hinting at the familiarity with a similar biblical verse.
President Obama issued four main points to the community before him that will help relieve the tension between religions and communities. For one, he argued that everyone is equal and everyone has responsibilities: everybody should do more than tolerance and start building bridges instead of dividing them.
Second, the President urged the community to “stay true to American values”. He noted that Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom applied to all religions. He did joke that Jefferson was also accused of being Muslim and that he was “in good company.” He reinforced that everyone should be active citizens, but should also respect the fact that there is freedom of religion.
Third, Americans should protect themselves from terrorism by celebrating Islam and noting contributions of Muslims all the time and not just after a terror attack. He added that people should also not echo the terrorist groups’ rhetoric, such as calling the attacks a “War on Islam”. By doing this, he argued that this gives the groups legitimacy, which is all they want.
Finally, President Obama said, “If we expect our dignity to be respected, we must respect the dignity of others” by building trust and initial respect in communities. He also argued that everyone is one family: if one is separated, the entire fabric is torn apart and it challenges the American values. He added that everybody has many identities, including Muslims. “You fit in here… you are part of America, too. You are not Muslim or American, you are Muslim and American… If you work hard and play by the rules, you can ultimately make it”, he said as the audience applauds.
“We are one American family… We will rise and fall together, but it won’t always be easy… under one nation, under god, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”