The two most powerful moments during President Obama’s first visit to an American mosque on Wednesday didn’t happen during his speech. Rather, they occurred in the moments before the president took the podium.
The first came when a color guard made up of young Muslim American Boy and Girl Scouts entered the venue. One of the older scouts told the flag bearer: “Proudly present the flag of the United States of America.” The audience, ranging from community leaders to Muslim-American military veterans to the two Muslim members of Congress, stood in unison to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The words of this pledge never seem to resonate as much. Here we were waiting for the President of the United States to speak to us because the spike in anti-Muslim hate had so skyrocketed that he felt compelled to address the issue. I had to fight back tears as we got to the last line of the pledge: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
You see, that last line is the promise that brought my Muslim immigrant father as well as the parents, grandparents, and even some of the people in that room to come to America. They came here for the promise of being treated equally regardless of faith, ethnicity, or race. But that promise has been in peril as of late.
And the second moment that emotionally stood out was when the young African-American-Muslim woman, Sabah, introduced the president. Sabah spoke of the challenges of wearing a hijab—some had called her a terrorist. Yet she noted that far more of her fellow Americans of all backgrounds had been supportive. And then she delivered a passionate line that elicited huge applause from the crowd: “I’m proud to be American, I’m proud to be black, and I’m proud to be Muslim.”
That is what America is truly about. We can be hyphenated Americans and be just as American as anyone else.
President Obama even touched on Sabah’s very point in his speech when he said, “You aren’t Muslim or American. You are Muslim and American.” That was a theme that came up often in his speech at the Islamic Center of Baltimore, which was part pep talk for Muslims, part calling out the haters and also part calling on Muslims to play a role in countering radicalization.
But the heart of the President’s speech was trying to educate our fellow Americans about Islam to counter the anti-Muslim climate we live in today. One that has seen close to 100 anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last two months according to a Department of Justice official I spoke to at the event, which is far higher than we see reported in the media.
Obama began by countering the concept that some on the right peddle that Islam is foreign to America. The president declared, “Islam has always been part of America.” Adding, “Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim.”
The president also spoke of how Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia statute for religious freedom expressly included Islam as one of the protected faiths (“the Mahometan” was TJ’s word for a Muslim). Obama also added something I had never heard before: Some had accused Jefferson of being a closeted Muslim. (I wonder who was the Donald Trump of the 1700s who did that?!)
Obama then traced the contributions of Muslims in America as well as noting that Muslim Americans keep us safe. “They’re our police and our firefighters…They serve honorably in our armed forces—meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom. And some rest in Arlington National Cemetery. “
And the president recognized the extraordinary Muslims he had met at the mosque that day, from educators to business people to the first hijab-wearing Muslim to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. But he added that despite the accomplishments of so many Muslims, he “could not help but be heartbroken to hear their worries and their anxieties.”
Obama relayed how he had received letters from Muslim-American parents who shared disturbing questions their young children were asking, like, “Are we going to be forced out of the country? Are we going to be rounded up?” Another Muslim American child wrote to him to say, “I’m scared.” The president responded forcefully that these are “conversations that you shouldn’t have to have with children—not in this country.”
The reality though is that where we are today as a community. There are young Muslim Americans who have been made to feel less than fully American simply because of their faith. We are seeing Muslim-American students bullied and taunted for wearing a hijab or having a first name like Mohammed.
The questions I find myself asking are: Will it get worse? Will the extreme voices win out? Will the good people simply be “bystanders to bigotry,” as Obama put it? Or will the voices of reason prevail?
I’m sure many Muslims at the event had similar question in mind. Perhaps sensing that, Obama told the audience: “I believe that, ultimately, our best voices will win out. And that gives me confidence and faith in the future.”
With of every fiber of my being I believe the president is correct. And despite the Trumps, Ben Carsons, or others on the right who believe that demonizing Muslims will make us cower in fear or even consider leaving this country, they are wrong. Our community, like every other minority community, will grow and prosper. I say that because our nation’s history tells us so. And because of our nation’s eternal promise that liberty and justice are not reserved only for one select religion or race, but “for all.”