By Jordan Fabian - 02/03/16 02:52 PM EST
Obama slams 'inexcusable' anti-Muslim rhetoric at Baltimore mosque
President Obama on Wednesday used his first-ever visit to a U.S. mosque to decry “inexcusable” rhetoric against Muslims and call on the country to unite against religious intolerance.
Obama blamed Republican White House hopefuls for fueling anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of terrorist attacks last year in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
He told the audience at the Islamic Society of Baltimore he’s heard from countless young Muslims who fear they are “going to be rounded up” and thrown out of the country and other community members whose mosques have been vandalized.
Obama said it’s a “time of fear” for Muslim-Americans, who are concerned about the threat of terrorism but also about being “targeted or blamed for the violent acts of the very few.”
“That’s not who we are,” the president said. “We are one American family and when any part of our family starts to feel separate or second-class or targeted, it tears at the fabric of our nation.”
The event was a chance for Obama to use his bully pulpit to influence the presidential campaign, which is officially underway following Monday's Iowa caucuses.
Businessman Donald Trump, who finished second in Iowa, has called for banning Muslims from entering the country until more progress is made in the war on terror. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the winner of the Iowa caucuses, has slammed Obama for not explicitly blaming “radical Islamic terrorism” for attacks in countries across the world.
Without naming his rivals, Obama rejected those calls, saying that mindset “helps our enemies.”
The president said organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) "twist" the words of the Koran and that the best way to fight terrorism is to show that the U.S. does not restrict the rights of Muslims to practice their religion.
“I refuse to give them legitimacy. We should never give them that legitimacy,” he said. “We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda.”
The appearance was also a gesture to Muslim-American leaders, who have long urged Obama to appear at a mosque on U.S. soil to support their community in a time of need.
Obama has shown a greater willingness to confront sensitive social issues, such as religion and race, in his second term. The trip comes seven years into his presidency, during which he has faced false accusations he secretly practices Islam. The president is a Christian.
Now that he does not face reelection, Obama has become less hesitant about stirring the pot. He joked that one of the nation’s most famous founding fathers faced similar accusations.
“By the way, Thomas Jefferson's opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim,” he said. “So I was not the first. It’s true, look it up.”
Obama also peppered his speech with references to his own faith. At one point, he said Islam’s message of peace should sound familiar to “Christians like myself.”
Republican presidential candidates aren’t the only ones to blame for the the negative perception of Muslims in America, Obama said. He also heaped scorn on the television and film industries for often depicting Muslims as enemies.
“Our television shows should have 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. You can tell good stories, while still representing the reality of our communities."
Nearly half of Americans believe “at least some” Muslims harbor anti-American sentiments, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
Americans overwhelmingly blame violence committed in the name of religion on people rather than religious faiths. But Islam was chosen as the faith most likely to promote violence against others.
Before the speech, White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed talk that Obama is giving Islam special attention.
He became the first sitting president to speak at the Israeli Embassy in Washington last week, denouncing anti-Semitism during a Holocaust remembrance event. He is scheduled to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.
Still, they emphasized it was important to defend Muslims against hostile rhetoric and discrimination, especially as the administration seeks to recruit Islamic organizations to combat homegrown radicalization.
"You're right where you belong. You're part of America too. You're not Muslim or American, you're Muslim and American,” Obama said in comments directed toward disaffected Muslims.
“We will rise and fall together,” he added. “It won’t always be easy. There will be times where our worst impulses are given voice. But I believe ultimately our best voice will win out. And that gives me confidence and faith in the future.”