In a speech at a Baltimore mosque, President Barack Obama offered a full-throated rejection of anti-Islam politics and a strong defense of the Muslim-American community.
"An attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths," he said at the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
It was Obama's first time to visit an American mosque during his presidency. In 2001, George W. Bush spoke at the Islamic Center of Washington—and quoted from the Quran—a week after the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama previously visited mosques in Cairo and Jakarta.
He spoke at a time when hate crimes targeting Muslims are reaching record highs and anti-Muslim rhetoric is bandied about in political campaigns. Some Muslim-Americans, he said, feel like "second-class citizens."
"You fit in here, right here. You're right where you belong," Obama said, directly addressing young people. "You're not Muslim or American, you're Muslim and American."
The Islamic Society, which also includes a school, seminary, and athletic club, was founded in 1969. It has about 3,000 congregants, according to the Baltimore Sun, many of which are immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, or their children. The mosque follows a conservative strain of Sunni Islam but with a pragmatic bent, the Sun said. For example, when it gets too busy, rules separating men and women during prayer time aren't enforced.
Obama didn't mention Donald Trump's name, but the speech was an implicit response to the Republican frontrunner's acidic, anti-Muslim rhetoric, including his plan to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. "We can't be bystanders to bigotry," Obama said at one point.
"Your entire community so often is targeted or blamed for the violent acts of a very few," he said. "I want to say two words that Muslim-Americans don't hear often enough, and that's thank you."
He noted that some of America's founding fathers owned copies of the Quran and specifically cited Islam while discussing the First Amendment. “Islam has always been a part of America,” he said. “This is not a new thing. Generations of Muslim-Americans helped build our nation.”
Some conservative critics have condemned the president for not explicitly saying America is at war with "radical Islam." Obama said he didn't want to do that when talking about terrorist groups like ISIS because "I refuse to give them that legitimacy."
"They try to portray themselves as holy warriors… who try to speak for Islam," he said. "We celebrate and lift up the success of Muslim-Americans. That's how we show the lie that they're trying to propagate. We shouldn't play into terrorist propaganda."
But Obama generally avoided talking about policies in his administration that have negatively affected Muslim communities here, such as the compromise bill he signed in December removing visa waivers for people who have visited Islamic countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran. He did say that "engaging with Muslim-American communities must never be a cover for surveillance."
He also touched on the false, pernicious rumors that he himself is Muslim."Thomas Jefferson's opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim," he said to laughs. "It's true, look it up. I'm in good company."
Before the speech, he held a closed-door meeting with 12 Muslim leaders from around the U.S., White House officials said. The meeting included Suzanne Barakat, the sister of a man killed in a North Carolina shooting last year that many see as a hate crime. Also at the table was Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer who will be the first U.S. Olympic athlete to wear a hijab. Obama told her to "bring home the gold" in his speech.
Advocates applauded Obama's decision to visit the mosque. "For a number of years we've been encouraging the president to go to an American mosque," Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement. "With the tremendous rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in our country, we believe that it will send a message of inclusion and mutual respect."
Conservative groups, unsurprisingly, have reported in recent days that the Islamic Society of Baltimore has "extremist ties." They've zeroed in on the tenure of former Imam Mohamad Adam El Sheikh, who told the Washington Post in 2004 that suicide bombings could be acceptable in extreme circumstances, a statement he later denied.
It's also the mosque of Adnan Syed, the subject of the Serial podcast, who was in court today for a hearing. (Obama did not mention Syed's case.)
Instead, Obama focused on a positive message of Islam's place in America. "Muslim-Americans are some of the most resilient and patriotic Americans you’ll ever meet," he said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.