President Barack Obama’s first visit to an American mosque in a Baltimore suburb on Wednesday may have been billed as a goodwill gesture, but it certainly attracted some serious attention.
Though Obama has visited many mosques on his visits to foreign countries (the National Grand Mosque of Malaysia, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo), his decision to visit this particular mosque, known for particularly virulent anti-Israel rhetoric and founded by the International Muslim Brotherhood, has drawn sharp criticism.
Though the White House pointedly refuses to make any connection between global terrorism and radical Islam, Obama criticized the resulting backlash of “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country”, and decried attacks against Muslims. In his speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he noted fears of Muslims that they will, “be forced out of the country, or…rounded up.”
He also said that for “more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace. And the very word itself, Islam, comes from salam — peace.” At that point, he self-identified as a Christian, who found that message “familiar”.
“Islam has always been part of America”, he stated, going into great detail to describe how Islam has always been an important part of American history.
In a statement some sources have described as unsettling, he said, “Muslim Americans keep us safe. They’re our police and our firefighters. They’re in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces — meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom. Some rest in Arlington National Cemetery.”
The reactions were quick to follow. On a Fox News interview that evening, Republican Donald Trump suggested that Obama’s motives were personal.
“I don’t have much thought, I think that we can go to lots of places. Right now, I don’t know if he’s — maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump said. “We have a lot of problems in this country, Greta, there are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque. I saw that just a little while ago, and so that’s his decision, that’s fine.”
At a town hall meeting at a pub in Dover, N.H., on Wednesday evening, Senator Marco Rubio accused the president of dividing America through such acts.
“I’m tired of being divided against each other for political reasons like this president’s done,” Rubio said. “Always pitting people against each other. Always.”
“Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque,” Rubio continued. “Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s going to be discrimination in America of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. And by the way, radical Islam poses a threat to Muslims themselves.”
“But again, it’s this constant pitting people against each other — that I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly,” Rubio said. “We can disagree on things, right? I’m a Dolphin fan, you’re a Patriot fan.”
In their most recent statistics on hate crimes for 2014, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 21% increase from the previous year, resulting in 912 incidents targeting Jews. In the same period, 154 incidents targeted Muslims. The White House has not announced plans for the president to speak at a synagogue in the near future.