Obama’s Speech a Lesson in Contrasts

When Barack Obama walked into the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday, you wouldn’t have known that it was his first visit to an American mosque as president. He was effortless in his delivery, acted like he knew everyone there, and the speech itself was classic Obama: bold and without apology.

As if taunting those who have claimed he is a Muslim over the years, he sprinkled Arabic throughout his remarks that was well-pronounced, as far as my ear could tell. He even joked that Thomas Jefferson was also accused of being a Muslim. “I’m in good company,” he added with a grin, owning the most extreme remarks of his critics and playing them to his advantage, making light of them to show their absurdity.

But perhaps the speech’s greatest strength was its framing: beginning with an acknowledgement that many Americans might not know what it looks like to be inside a mosque, noting that it would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a church or synagogue. From the start, he hoped to evoke a commonality of practice among American religious populations, no matter the particulars of belief.

In all this, he was speaking less to his immediate audience than to the much broader American public, directing his words toward an audience that has never stepped food inside a mosque, while attempting to normalize what goes on there. His approach to discussing faith at the Baltimore Islamic center was the same as it was when he spoke at a Washington synagogue in May, as well as Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June: to insist that faith more unites than divides, drawing ever larger circles of shared experience into its orbit.

Three days before hearing Obama’s first address to a U.S. mosque, I was in Des Moines, listening to Ted Cruz speak at a rally on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. Cruz, too, spoke passionately about faith. His understanding of faith, however, was a closed set, open only to those who comprise the Christian community who he said should rise up to support him.

Of course, the rhetoric of a president speaking to the diverse nation he governs, and the rhetoric of a candidate speaking hoping to win votes, are bound to make different kinds of appeals. Yet it was impossible to miss the difference in tone and purpose, each making a clear statement who he believed ought to be affirmed and supported as citizens.

Obama’s speech today brought to mind another address as well: President George W. Bush’s remarks at the Islamic Center of Washington less than a week after 9/11. Whereas Obama acted at home in his speech, Bush was more formal in his presentation. Whereas Obama spoke to the community as if he knew them all, Bush projected a feeling that he was an invited guest.

Bush and Obama each delivered their speeches at times of heightened Islamophobia. While Bush’s visit to the mosque is usually seen as a direct response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, it was in fact, not because of the attacks themselves, but because of Americans’ reaction to 9/11. He was responding to the anger of the street, the kind of anger that might lead someone to pull into a gas station and attack a Sikh believing he was a Muslim.

These two speeches in response to increased harassment and suspicion endured by Muslims have much in common. Obama’s speech, too, was made directly in response to reactions of other Americans against Muslim Americans.

However, the real difference now is that what the president is responding to is coming from American politicians themselves. Obama is reacting to the same kind of Islamophobic rhetoric that prompted his predecessor to speak out, but it’s amplified now by men who believe they should lead this country, and so it is far more dangerous.

Fifteen years ago, when a Republican president to his great credit said in the Islamic Center of Washington, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind,” none could have guessed that public rhetoric regarding Islam would move in the direction that it has.

Sadly, we don’t always move forward. We often move backward in frightening ways. However, we also look backward to history for signs of hope. Nearly 60 years ago, when another Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, dedicated the Islamic Center of Washington in 1957, he told the gathered Muslims that “America would fight with her whole strength for your right to … worship according to your conscience.”

We’ve come quite a long way from hearing a president saying so clearly that he would fight for Islam. Obama’s visit today reminds us we may not have strayed so far that we cannot return.




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    Peter Manseau

    Peter Manseau is an award-winning author and curator of an exhibit on America's diverse religious past for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. @petermanseau.

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