President Barack Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore last week sparked a lot of commentary and discussion worldwide on his words, actions and likely next steps in the remainder of his term.
Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council, was at the speech and answered our questions (live and via email) on Obama’s visit, agenda and policy.
READ MORE ON OUR COVERAGE OF THE MOSQUE VISIT
- Check out award-winning author Peter Manseau’s analysis of how Obama’s visit and speech differs from previous administrations’ outreach efforts.
- Read Reza Aslan’s thoughts on the president’s speech, which he called an important address but pretty unimpressive.
- Look at our on-the-ground coverage of the president’s visit to the mosque and read what some of the Muslim American community’s movers and shakers who were in attendance had to say.
How would Obama want this speech to be remembered?
This is a speech whose themes, in some ways, are very familiar. He’s spoken to the themes of inclusion and tolerance and one American family and the fabric of our American society in different ways and different forms over the years. But clearly, this speech was notable because it was the first time that he spoke directly to the Muslim American community in their house of worship. Of course, he traveled to Egypt, Indonesia and, Turkey where he’s visited mosques and spoken directly to members of those congregations and of course the broader Muslim community globally.
But, given some recent developments and some of the recent and frankly shameful rhetoric that we’ve seen, the president thought it was important to take this opportunity to share those same thoughts and similar thoughts in many ways directly with the [Islamic Society of Baltimore] congregation. But I think we were all gratified to see that his comments resonated well beyond those in attendance [last week], even though he was having a discussion in many ways with those congregated there. I think we’ve been pleased to see that his comments have gotten a lot of notice and those, certainly in the Muslim American community, but those beyond have noted where the president stands on this.
We saw him make somewhat similar remarks in the Israeli Embassy [January 27] and again [February 4] at the National Prayer Breakfast, he hit some of same themes, explicitly referencing his discussion at the mosque [February 3]. And I think it’s something you’ll consistently see from this president for the rest of the time he has in office, it’s something that he truly believes in: his talk of us being united, of us getting strength from our differences. And I think you’ll see him hearken back to those comments in the months that remain in his administration.
Has the president received any reactions from leaders around the world about his mosque speech?
I wouldn’t want to characterize private communications, but we have been very gratified by the reaction, both public and private, that we have seen. I think people around the world appreciate that the president is not looking to stand back and to stay out of the fray. This is a president who, on this issue and on other issues, has demonstrated through action and his words that he is going to be engaged, he’s going to be involved, he’s not going to stand by as we see incidents of persecution and hate speech and, in fact, hate crimes in the United States and around the world. I think we’ve been gratified that many have taken that message on board. We’ve seen a great reaction from the American Muslim community but we’ve also seen a very welcome response from some of our counterparts overseas.
Obama in his speech encouraged Muslims to be positive and did address the tradition of criticism in American politics, implicitly referencing the criticism he has received as president. Some might perceive the president’s comments as setting up a binary between a positive outlook and opting for extremism or violence. Those with principled stances on a range of issues like domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens, Guantanamo Bay and the use of drone strikes may take exception to this binary. How would you respond to this criticism?
Across the board, whether it’s the use of lethal force in counterterrorism operations overseas — drone strikes — or the way we treat detainees who are in our custody or a whole host of other issues … (as one of his first acts, he ended the previous system of detention and interrogation)… what we have demonstrated time and again is that even as we are engaging in very important actions to keep our country safe, we bring our values with us wherever we go, and that includes the battlefield. It’s a part of who we are, it’s not something that we can leave behind or relinquish when convenient. As Americans, we have certain innate traits and values that we carry with us, whether we’re engaged in hostilities overseas or we are looking at some of our own domestic policies here at home.
When it comes to Guantanamo Bay, this president has made it a priority to shutter that facility. We’ll continue to focus on that. When it comes to our use of lethal force overseas, this president has been public on when and how we do that, making clear that nothing is more sacred to us than innocent human life. Of course, as president of the United States, you’re faced with some difficult decisions. And I think we certainly appreciate the fact that some of those decisions may engender some controversy, they’ll engender some questions, but when those situations have arrived, our tactic has always been one of openness, and that’s why you saw the president address our use of lethal force overseas in a major speech. That’s why you’ve heard him talk about, at length, how we use our electronic surveillance technologies, for example, in a major speech in 2014. It’s why you’ve heard him, time and again, talk about how Guantanamo Bay is a detriment to our national security, how it is an imperative that we shutter this facility as soon as we can. And that is something he talked about on his first day in office and it’s something he’s talked about ever since.
So clearly, when you’re president of the United States, you face tough choices, but for this president, what is not a tough choice, what is not a choice at all, is whether we live up to our values even as we take on some of the security challenges that we face. I think we’ve all done our best to make that clear.
Do you know if any of these issues are going to be post-term issues that he’ll probably continue to take up and partner with American Muslims on?
I’m sure you’ll continue to see him engage on some of these issues. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of where we are. Obviously we have a year left in this administration with a lot of business to get done including some of the business we just talked about, Guantanamo Bay and other elements. So I wouldn’t want to get ahead of that.
But this president has spearheaded some key initiatives. My Brother’s Keeper is one that serves to mentor minority communities. And there are other issues about which this president is very passionate including some that have significant bearing on the Muslim community and the American Muslim community. So I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if you hear him continue to be engaged on this in the years to come, but obviously we have a pretty full agenda in the months that remain in his term.
Does Obama have anything else on his agenda in his final year in office in terms of outreach toward the Muslim constituent?
I wouldn’t want to get into specifics and get ahead of where we are, but certainly I think you will hear him continue to focus on similar themes: inclusion, diversity, tolerance, acceptance and strength through unity and strength through diversity that you heard about [last week]. And hopefully before long, we’ll be through this season during which some of the shameful rhetoric has proliferated and the president won’t need to constantly remind our country who we are as a people. And even as importantly, who we are not. But until that day comes, the president will continue to do that.
Does Obama believe the rise of Donald Trump’s popularity is in some way related to the demographic changes taking place in America? If so, how does he see what can be done to address the fears of people who think that America is changing too quickly for them?
I think it’s difficult to try and diagnose the root cause of some of the shameful rhetoric and actions that we’ve seen, especially in recent months, but there are a couple of things that the president has spoken to. One, are the legitimate fears of not only the American people but people around the world in the aftermath of Paris and other horrific terrorist attacks. And of course that fear is authentic and it’s also legitimate. But that concern over the threat of terrorism, which is real in parts of the world, is no excuse to single out one specific religious or ethnic group or any other subset of people, either here or overseas. And I think that is what the president has been hammering. In fact doing so only fuels the fire of this hateful ideology that has been at the root of many of the attacks.