By Barbara Slavin
During his seven years in office, President Barack Obama has visited mosques in foreign countries, in part, to show respect for one of the world’s major religions as a way of countering perceptions that Americans are anti-Islam. His belated presidential visit, his first, this week to an American mosque reflected acknowledgement that bigotry is rising in this country.
Since terrorist attacks in Paris in November and the mass shooting in California a month later by a young Muslim couple who sympathized with the extremist ideology of the Islamic State (ISIS), American Muslims have reported a disturbing rise in harassment and violence against them and their places of worship.
According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, 49 % of Americans believe that “some” Muslims in the United States are “anti-American.” A similar percentage believes that Muslims are more prone to violence than other religious groups.
Given the atrocities committed by individuals who claim to be acting in the name of Islam, such anxiety is understandable.
The 47 year-old Islamic Society of Baltimore, where Obama spoke Wednesday, has twice been the object of threats, the president said .Other American mosques have been targeted, as have women wearing Islamic veils, and Sikhs, a non-Muslim religion that calls on traditional
male observers to wear turbans and beards.
The spike in anxiety after the San Bernadino attack has been dangerously exploited, however, by Republican presidential candidates trying to attract votes. Donald Trump has been the worst offender, threatening to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the United States
until “we can figure out” how to defeat ISIS.
His position, however preposterous and impractical, has fed a climate of hate that in
Trump’s case, extends to Mexicans and other illegal immigrants. (A campaign video put out by Trump’s campaign that purported to show Mexicans storming the United States actually depicts Moroccans trying to get into Algeria, suggesting that Trump doesn’t know or care about the difference.)
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s second place showing this week in the Iowa caucuses will diminish his nomination prospects or his xenophobic fervor.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has staked his presidential hopes on a good showing in next week’s New Hampshire primary, has scarcely taken a higher road than the New York real estate magnate. Christie has called for keeping out all Syrian refugees, including children, to reduce the possibly that one of them might someday carry out a terrorist act in the United States.
Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who is fading fast in the GOP nomination race, compared Syrians fleeing the five-year-old civil war in their country and seeking entrance to the United States to “rabid dogs“.
Other Republican candidates, among them Iowa caucus winner Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have suggested that if Obama would only blame “radical Islamic terrorism” for recent attacks, it would be easier to prevent them.
In fact, most of those arrested in the United States for links to ISIS are American citizens, according to a recent study by the George Washington University Program on Extremism. Many were born Christian, then “converted” to an extreme interpretation of Islam through online recruitment tools such as Twitter, which can hardly been prevented by tighter border controls.
As Obama noted on Wednesday, the best defense against radicalization comes from working with the Muslim community to identify and weed out propagators of extremist ideology. Calling ISIS adherents Muslim can backfire, Obama said, by denigrating the Muslim faith. To suggest that “Islam itself is at the root of the problem” not only betrays American values but aids ISIS propaganda, Obama said.
“The best way for us to fight terrorism is to deny these organizations legitimacy and to show that here in the United States of America, we do not suppress Islam; we celebrate and lift up the success of Muslim Americans,” added the president.
One possible reason why Obama has not visited an American mosque before is that there is still a minority of Americans who think he is a “secret” Muslim. The president, whose late father was a Muslim from Kenya, was raised a Christian by his mother and grandparents
and attends church services from time to time.
Speaking to a large and enthusiastic crowd that included many young people, Obama proceeded to give a history lesson, noting that there have been Muslims in the United States since before the American revolution.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two prominent of America’s founding fathers, had Korans, Obama said, and many of the African slaves brought to this country in colonial times were Muslims. The first American mosque was built in North Dakota, he said, and
the oldest surviving mosque in this country is in Iowa.
At about three million, Muslims are still a small minority in the United States, making up only one percent of the population. Given that, it can be assumed that many Americans have
never met a Muslim or developed a close friendship with a Muslim, which helps explain their hatred and their fear.
Culturally, there are a few Muslim American comedians, such as Maz Jobrani, who is of Iranian extraction, but no Muslims with prime time television shows.
In Hollywood movies, there are plenty of parts for Muslim terrorists, not so many for soldiers, firefighters or physicians.
In his speech, Obama paid tribute to the handful of well-known American Muslims including the superstar athletes Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
When the U.S. Olympic team marches into the stadium in Rio de Janeiro this summer, one of the team members, Obama noted, will be a Muslim fencing champion, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was in the audience Wednesday wearing a headscarf.
“We are one American family,” Obama said. “We will rise and fall together. It won’t always be easy. There will be times where our worst impulses are given voice. But I believe that ultimately, our best voices will win out.”
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.