For years, President Obama avoided visiting a mosque in the United States. While the White House never explained why, American Muslims tended to believe he was afraid of the backlash such a visit might inspire from conservatives.
On Wednesday, he finally visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore, and much of the right’s reaction is validating those suspicions. There was some outright dishonesty, like Donald Trump’s implication that Obama is a Muslim: “Maybe he feels comfortable there.” (Memo to The Donald: He didn’t do this until the eighth year of his presidency.) That’s standard Trump fare. More surprising was Marco Rubio’s response:
He gave a speech at a mosque, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. This constant pitting people against each other, I can’t stand that. It's hurting our country badly.
Reading Rubio’s remarks, anyone who heard Obama must have thought, “Did he watch the same speech I did?” The answer is most likely not: Rubio is in the middle of a hectic New Hampshire campaign swing, and it’s hard to imagine he spent an hour watching Obama speak. Suffice it to say that the president’s address bore little resemblance to Rubio’s description.
Obama’s speech did speak about incidents of Islamophobia, about slurs and attacks on Muslims and mosques in the U.S. Those accounts are factually true, and the sense of fear among American Muslims—whether one regards it as justified or not—is real. But rather than blame all Americans, Obama said this:
Your fellow Americans stand with you .... That’s not unusual. Because just as so often we only hear about Muslims after a terrorist attack, so often we only hear about Americans’ response to Muslims after a hate crime has happened, we don’t always hear about the extraordinary respect and love and community that so many Americans feel.
Obama’s comments about Islamic extremism were carefully nuanced, but they hardly ignored the problem of radical Islam. He did take a shot at Republicans who criticize him for not referring to “Islamic terrorists” as much as they’d like, but he also said, “It is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam.” (In the past, Obama has been more reluctant to make that connection, leading to the tortured spectacle of a Christian U.S. president trying to adjudicate Muslim orthodoxy.) He spoke about the need for religious freedom and pluralism at home and abroad, called for Muslims to condemn persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and decried anti-Semitism in Europe—all rebukes of certain strains of Muslim preaching and thought.
When spoken in other contexts, these ideas are mainstays of conservative rhetoric. Religious freedom has been an important rallying cry for American conservatives upset by changing laws on gay equality. Obama mentioned the persecution of Christians during Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, without raising Republican ire.
In fact, Rubio’s charge of divisiveness only makes sense if one believes that Islam is inherently incompatible with American values. Obama explicitly rejected this view Wednesday, speaking of all the ways that Islam has been a part of the United States since colonial times, and telling his audience, “You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.” (The idea that Islam, a long-standing part of the national culture, is not American echoes arguments that white culture is somehow the “true” American culture, and African American culture is separable from it.)
I’m not in any position to determine what Rubio truly believes, but there’s ample evidence that many Americans do feel Islam is incompatible with American values—especially those whose votes Rubio is trying to win in the Republican primary. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2015 American Values Survey, 56 percent of Americans think “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.” The numbers are much higher among Republicans and Tea Party members—76 and 77 percent agree with that statement, respectively. (Only 43 percent of Democrats agree.)
That antipathy is relatively new. Obama’s words, in fact, bore a close resemblance to President George W. Bush’s remarks after 9/11, when he called Islam a religion of peace and criticized discrimination and attacks against American Muslims. (Bush’s brother Jeb notably voiced support for Obama’s mosque visit Wednesday, speaking with some passion about inclusion—and criticizing the president for taking so long to get to a mosque, just as many American Muslims criticized Obama.)
So what changed? Why were those 2001 comments by a Republican president welcomed, while Obama’s very similar comments today were not? Part of it is surely partisanship. But Americans have also become less and less accepting of Islam. When PRRI asked the same question in 2011, for example, just 47 percent of Americans agreed that Islam was incompatible with American values, and 48 percent disagreed.
Are the Values of Islam at Odds With American Values?
Other surveys, using slightly different formulations, produce similar results. “Three weeks after 9/11, an ABC News poll found that Americans had a more favorable view of Islam than unfavorable, 47 percent to 39 percent,” notes Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution. “But a decade later, the picture changed dramatically. A poll I conducted in April 2011 showed that 61 percent of Americans expressed unfavorable views of Islam, while only 33 percent expressed favorable views.”
There’s a rich irony to Rubio’s remarks: He is upset that Obama would offer generalizations about Americans’ attitudes, but sees no problem with equally sweeping characterizations of Muslims. But although Obama did not, in fact, say that Americans are anti-Islam, these poll numbers show that he would have been largely accurate if he had. Reflexive attacks on even the most broad, inclusive messages, like the ones Obama delivered Wednesday, seem certain to only widen the gap between American Muslims and their fellow citizens.