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.