Obama criticises attacks on US Muslims in mosque visit

Mr Obama at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville, Maryland, on Wednesday. It was his first visit to a mosque in the United States as President.
Mr Obama at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in Catonsville, Maryland, on Wednesday. It was his first visit to a mosque in the United States as President.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama embraced Muslims in the United States as part of "one American family", and implicitly criticised the Republican presidential candidates in a warning to citizens not to be "bystanders to bigotry''.

In a visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, his first to a mosque in the United States as President, Mr Obama recited phrases from the Quran and praised US Muslims as a crucial part of America's history and vital to the nation's future.

"And so if we're serious about freedom of religion - and I'm speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country - we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths," he said.

Although he never mentioned Republican presidential candidates like Mr Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, the targets in his remarks were clear. "We have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion," he said.

The President did not talk about intractable international conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and focused instead on the reality of vandalised mosques and bullied US Muslim children.

"These children are just like mine," Mr Obama said. "And the notion that they would be filled with doubt and questioning their places in this great country of ours at a time when they've got enough to worry about - it's hard being a teenager already - that's not who we are."

Although President George W. Bush visited a mosque in Washington within six days of the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to reassure US Muslims, Mr Obama, a Christian, brushed aside requests for a visit for years in part because 43 per cent of Republicans and 29 per cent of Americans think he is a Muslim, according to a CNN/ORC poll last September. Aides feared a mosque visit would feed into that perception.

But in the final year of his presidency, Mr Obama has lost much of his reticence in addressing issues such as race, addiction and religion.

Concerns about Muslims and Syrian refugees in the United States have been growing. Attacks on US Muslims and mosques have spiked, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

At a meeting at the White House last month, prominent Muslim Americans pleaded with senior administration officials to have the President visit a mosque in the hope of stemming such attacks.

Ms Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential scholar, likened Mr Obama's mosque visit and warnings against anti-Muslim language to warnings made by two other presidents at the end of their terms.

"George Washington warned his countrymen against the increasing power of factions which kindle animosity of one against the other while (Dwight) Eisenhower warned against the unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex," she wrote in an e-mail.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2016, with the headline 'Obama criticises attacks on US Muslims in mosque visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe