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Obama's take on 3 key debates about Muslims in America

POSTED: February 6, 2016 6:19 a.m.
Allison Pond/

In his first appearance at a U.S. mosque, President Barack Obama on Wednesday said he wanted to refute “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans" from Republican presidential candidates.

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In his first appearance at a U.S. mosque, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he wanted to refute “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans" from Republican presidential candidates, CNN reported.

"We can't be bystanders to bigotry," Obama said. "Together, we've got to show that America truly protects all faiths.”

His 48-minute speech was a clear shot at statements from Republican presidential candidates including Donald Trump, who has called for closing all mosques and banning Muslims from entering the country, according to CNN.

The president made strong statements regarding three ongoing debates involving Muslims in America, including religious violence, discrimination against Muslims and religious freedom.

In the debate over whether Islam is inherently violent, the president came down on the side of those who say it is a religion of peace that some radicals are taking advantage of to promote a political agenda.

He said Islam promotes peace, but “there is an organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror.”

Foreign Policy published two articles in November explaining opposing views on this issue. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,” wrote that insisting that Islam has nothing to do with violence makes it impossible to discuss and change the intolerant, outdated and violent teachings that do exist in Muslim texts. United States Institute of Peace acting Vice President Manal Omar wrote that there is not one cause of conflict, and that religion is just one factor among many, including global politics, dysfunctional states and economic uncertainty.

Most Americans, 68 percent, agree with Obama, saying violent people using religion to justify their actions is a bigger problem than religious teachings promoting violence, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday.

There is a strong partisan split, however, with Republicans much more likely to say the teachings of some religions promote violence. There is also a split in how Americans want the next president to talk about Islam, with 65 percent of Republicans saying the next president should speak bluntly even if it means criticizing Islam, while 70 percent of Democrats say the next president should be careful not to criticize Islam as a whole.

Partisan divides on issues involving Islam were not present in 2002 polls, but have appeared since then, Pew Research Associate Besheer Mohamed told Religion News Service.

When it comes to anti-Muslim discrimination, the president said threats and harassment of Muslim-Americans, including bullied children and vandalized mosques, have surged over the last year.

Most Americans, 76 percent, agree that Muslims are facing an increase in discrimination, Pew found.

Obama highlighted the work of Muslim American doctors, teachers, Nobel Prize winners, sports heroes and veterans before appealing directly to young Muslims with a plea not to listen to those who tell them they don’t belong: “You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”

The president also spoke at length about the history of religious freedom in America, saying that the First Amendment protects religion from the state but also protects the state from those who would use religious animosity for their own ends.

His remarks represented a different angle on a key issue for conservative candidates, including Ted Cruz, who said 2016 would be a “religious liberty election,” NPR reported, as well as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who have each created religious liberty advisory committees. Rather than talking about religious minorities, conservatives focus on the legalization of same-sex marriage and the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act as threats to religious freedom, according to NPR.

Obama ended his speech with stories of support for Muslim-Americans, including the story of a 7-year-old boy in Texas who donated the contents of his piggy bank to a mosque that had been vandalized. He also mentioned a group of soldiers that sent a message to a young girl who was afraid because she’s a Muslim, saying “I Will Protect You.”

“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 said.
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