President Barack Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore on Wednesday in an attempt to recast what he said was a warped image of Islam.
In particular, he was seeking to rebut “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans” from republican presidential candidates.
Obama, in his first visit to a mosque in the United States, described Muslims as essential to the fabric of America and decried GOP plans that would single them out for extra scrutiny.
He said those plans only amplify the messages coming from terrorist groups who suggest the U.S. is at war with the Muslim faith.
“Let me say as clearly as I can as president of the United States: you fit right here,” Obama told the audience at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a 47-year-old mosque with thousands of attendees. “You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”
Describing conversations with young Muslim parents whose children are worried about being removed from the country, Obama demanded that people of all faiths be accepted without bias into the U.S.
“You could not help but be heartbroken by their worries and their anxieties,” Obama said of an earlier conversation with young Muslim community leaders. “Some of them are parents, and they talked about how their children were asking, ‘Are we going to be forced out of the country? Are we going to be rounded up? Why do people treat us like this?’ Conversations you shouldn’t have to have with children. Not in this country.”
White House officials said Obama was looking to issue a forceful counterpoint to the language favored by some republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump, who has proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country until tighter anti-terror measures are put into place.
In his speech, Obama said there aren’t enough positive depictions of Muslims in American media and said that must change.
“We have to lift up the contributions of the Muslim-American community not when there’s a problem but all the time,” Obama said. “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security. It’s not that hard to do.”
Before Wednesday, many Muslim groups had called for him to schedule a stop at a U.S. mosque as a public rejection of Islamophobia, the same way President George W. Bush did in the days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
But, for Obama, who continues to be dogged by conspiracy theories that suggest he himself is a Muslim (Obama is a Christian), a stop at an Islamic center proved far more complicated the first seven years of his term.
A CNN/ORC poll in September found that 29 percent of Americans said they believed Obama was a Muslim, including 43 percent of republicans.
He alluded to the conspiracy theories on Wednesday, saying the same rumors had plagued Thomas Jefferson.
“I am not the first,” he said. “I am in good company.”
In his final year in office, Obama has sought to use his public platform – however waning – to advocate against what he sees as dangerous threads in the political discourse.
“We can’t be bystanders to bigotry,” Obama said. “Together, we’ve got to show that America truly protects all faiths. As we protect our country from terrorism, we should not reinforce the ideas and the rhetoric of the terrorists themselves.”
“The president’s trip is extremely timely. It couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, who cited an uptick in vandalism at mosques and violence against Muslims entering and exiting places of worship, as indications the time was right for a presidential visit.
During a meeting with Muslim community leaders in December, Khera lobbied top Obama aides, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, to schedule a visit for Obama to a U.S. mosque, an event the White House moved quickly to produce.
“Coming to a mosque is a public reminder that Muslims have been part of America since our nation’s founding,” Khera said.
Obama entered office in 2009 hoping to repair relations with Muslims abroad, who felt targeted after American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and infuriated by the use of torture on terror suspects.
Months after taking office, he fulfilled a campaign promise to deliver a speech to global followers of Islam, traveling to Cairo and insisting the U.S. seek a “new beginning” with Muslim countries.
While in Egypt, he toured the Sultan Hassan Mosque alongside a veiled Hillary Clinton, then serving as his secretary of state.
He’s also visited mosques in Jakarta in 2010 and Kuala Lumpur in 2014.
In the subsequent years, however, new fears of homegrown attacks have emerged following the rise of ISIS and its dexterity in recruiting would-be terrorists online.
Republican candidates have vowed to apply extra scrutiny to Muslims entering the country and to tamp down on suspected extremist activities at U.S. mosques.
Those plans have earned Obama’s ire.
Along with his aides, Obama consistently groups much of the GOP field with the most outspoken proponent for religious screening, Trump.
The republican proposals have prompted fears from U.S. officials that Obama’s work toward repairing relations with the Arab world could be diminished by the increasingly loud rhetoric on the campaign trail.