By GARDINER HARRIS FEB. 3, 2016
WASHINGTON — President Obama reached out to Muslims in the United States on Wednesday in an impassioned speech, embracing them as part of “one American family,” implicitly criticizing the Republican presidential candidates and warning citizens not to be “bystanders to bigotry.’’
In a visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, his first to a mosque as president, Mr. Obama recited phrases from the Quran and he praised American Muslims as a crucial part of America’s history and vital to the nation’s future. “If we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m talking to my fellow Christians who are the majority in this country — we have to understand that an attack on one faith is an attack on all faiths,” he said.
Although Mr. Obama never mentioned Republican presidential candidates like Donald J. Trump and Ben Carson, the targets of his scolding were clear. “We have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate bigotry,” Mr. Obama said.
Citing Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Obama said Muslims had been an integral part of the United States since its founding. “So this is not a new thing,” he said. “Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation.”
But he said that too many Americans only heard about Islam 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 was no black people on television.”
Mr. Obama 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.”
For Mr. Obama, the remarks were an implicit admission of how little progress has been made since he opened his presidency with a 2009 speech he delivered in Cairo that sought to reach out to the world’s Muslims by calling for a “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.”
Seven years after the Cairo address, which the White House titled, “A New Beginning,” Mr. Obama is nearing the end of his presidency at a time when respect and common ground have often been overtaken by suspicion and angry political rhetoric.
It is the result Mr. Obama said in Cairo that he feared the most: that the world would remain “bound by the past,” doomed never to move past historic divisions and mistrust. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama urged Americans to look inward to examine the roots of those divisions, and to seek ways to transcend the fear and suspicion.
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 killed 14 people and seriously wounded 22.
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 Muslim Americans pleaded with senior administration officials to have the president visit a mosque in the hopes of stemming such attacks.
On Wednesday, the president said, “So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” To young Muslims, he said, “You fit in here. You aren’t Muslim or American. You are Muslim and American.”
Mr. Obama took office pledging to repair the image of the United States among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, that he felt had been tarnished by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a speech before the Turkish Parliament in April 2009, he expressed “our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith.” Two months later, Mr. Obama spoke to the Muslim world from Cairo University and emphasized that there are mosques and Muslims in every state in America.
“So let there be no doubt,” he said, “Islam is a part of America.”
But Mr. Obama’s defense of Islam has been constrained by a suspicion in the United States that he is secretly a Muslim himself, even though he has said he is a Christian and has regularly attended church services.
In 2010, Mr. Obama avoided for weeks addressing a battle over a proposed Muslim community center and mosque near the World Trade Center in Manhattan before finally using a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan to express strong support for the project.
But in the final year of his presidency, Mr. Obama has lost much of his reticence in addressing issues he cares about.
Within days of the emergence of Republican legislative proposals in Congress to essentially bar all Syrian refugees and of language demonizing Muslim Americans after the Paris attacks, Mr. Obama told reporters at a news conference in Turkey that such talk was “shameful.”
“That’s not American; it’s not who we are,” he said.
In his final State of the Union address last month, Mr. Obama returned to this subject.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” he said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.”
Last week, in a visit to the Israeli Embassy in Washington to celebrate those who saved Jews during the Holocaust, Mr. Obama, whose 2009 Cairo speech was not popular in Israel, said that “an attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential scholar, likened Mr. Obama’s mosque visit and increasingly urgent 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.