President Barack Obama, in his first visit to a mosque in the United States, said Wednesday he was seeking to rebut “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans” from Republican presidential candidates.
Obama arrived at the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday. Its campus contains a mosque and school that runs from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“So often, Muslim Americans are targeted and blamed for the acts of a few,” Obama said in an address following a meeting with representatives of the community.
“An attack on one faith, is an attack on all faiths.”
The US president, who had taken off his shoes as Muslims do to respect the place of worship, said he was “grateful” for the efforts that the Muslim community has made “to keep us as one American family.”
Earlier, the president met with participants including university chaplains, community activists and public-health professionals.
The historic 45-minute speech at a large, suburban Baltimore mosque was attended by some of the country’s most prominent Muslims. In what appeared to be a counter to the rise in Islamophobia, Obama celebrated the long history of Muslim achievement in American life from sports to architecture and described Muslims as Cub Scouts, soldiers and parents, pointing out the mother of the pre-med college student who introduced him at the podium.
“There are voices who are constantly claiming you have to choose between your identities…. Do not believe them…. You fit in here. Right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too,” Obama said, his volume rising as he said he was speaking in particular at that moment to young Muslim Americans. “You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American. And don’t grow cynical.”
Meanwhile, some Republicans have criticised Obama for not linking attacks like the one in Paris to “radical Islamic terrorism”. Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Trump have voiced that concern.
Obama has said he refuses to describe the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other such groups that way because the term grants them a religious legitimacy they do not deserve.
In June 2009, just five months into his presidency, Obama toured the Sultan Hassan mosque during a visit to Cairo.
In a speech at Cairo University, he declared that the US would never be at war with Islam.
“America and Islam are not exclusive,” he said, and share “common principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Attendees at the Baltimore mosque are predominantly of Turkish heritage, although immigrants of other nationalities also participate, according to Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic studies specialist at American University who has researched mosques around the US.
Obama “left it literally to the last” to visit a US mosque, Ahmed noted, “but better late than never.”