U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his first speech from a mosque on February 3. He pushed the Muslim-American community to lead the Muslim world into a better future, but he missed a “tear down this wall” moment by speaking at a mosque with a radical history instead of giving a lift to Muslim reformists who confront Islamism.
Here are three hits and three misses from Obama’s speech in alternating order:
Hit: Using quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Obama simultaneously countered Islamist preaching that Muslims cannot reconcile their faith identity with American patriotism. This is also a strong rebuttal to those that wish to exempt Muslims from constitutional protections simply for their choice of faith. He said:
Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)
…Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.)
Miss: He implied that Muslim terrorists and extremists purposely “twist” Islamic verses to suit their agendas, as if groups like ISIS do not actually believe in the Islam they practice and impose. He said:
“Right now, there is an organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror. Part of what’s happened in the Middle East and North Africa and other places where we see sectarian violence is religion being a tool for another agenda—for power, for control.”
By denying the Islamist ideological root of these threats, President Obama removes the obligation from the Muslim world to directly address, debunk and reform Islamic interpretations that are dangerous and strongly-held. He disarms the chief argument of the best Muslim allies, like those in the Muslim Reform Movement.
Hit: Pressuring Muslim leaders to confront anti-Western propaganda, anti-Semitism in Europe and persecution of Christians.
Obama did not call on Muslim leaders to refute Islamism overall but he did directly tell them that they have an obligation to confront anti-Western views that present the U.S. and its allies as an enemy of their faith. He said:
“Muslim political leaders have to push back on the lie that the West oppresses Muslims, and against conspiracy theories that says America is the cause of every ill in the Middle East. Now, that doesn’t mean Muslim Americans aren’t free to criticize American-U.S. foreign policy. That’s part of being an American.”
“…The fact is, there are Christians who are targeted now in the Middle East, despite having been there for centuries, and there are Jews who’ve lived in places like France for centuries who now feel obliged to leave because they feel themselves under assault—sometimes by Muslims.”
The Islamists’ constant depiction of the U.S. and its allies as evil, including reflexive bashing of the integrity of law enforcement, acts as a trigger for radicals to become violent jihadists. We need genuinely democratic Muslims around the world to hold Islamist propagandists accountable for their incitements.
Miss: The choice of the Islamic Society of Baltimore as a venue, which he described as “an all-American story.”
The ideological war against Islamism is somewhat like a political campaign. The Muslim reformers need positive press, resources and a platform. By praising the Islamic Society of Baltimore, the president gave a helping hand to the Islamist side of the competition.
The Islamic Society of Baltimore, as documented in this impressive expose by the Investigative Project on Terrorism , has a long history of promoting Islamist extremism including the very same views Obama pushed Muslim leaders to confront.
A Muslim Brotherhood leader from Sudan named Mohammed Adam El-Sheikh served as the imam for a total of 15 years from 1983 to 1989 and 1994 to 2003. He was instrumental in setting up the U.S. branch of the Brotherhood. He also led the radical Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, was regional director for an al-Qaeda-linked charity and said in 2004 suicide bombings are justifiable if authorized by afatwa and if it’s in a situation where “Muslims are to be cornered where they cannot defend themselves, except through these kinds of means.”
El-Sheikh signed a letter condemning ISIS, but the letter endorsed the foundational doctrines of ISIS and other Islamist terrorists.
A screenshot from 2000 shows the mosque’s chosen resources for Muslims were radicals, including known supporters of terrorism like Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas spiritual leader Yousef al-Qaradawi, Bilal Philips and Jamal Badawi.
Even after El-Sheikh left, the mosque has not been a model for countering Islamist extremism. Its imam preaches against“progressive groups within Muslims” like those that tolerate homosexuals. It has radicals as guest speakers, such as Zaid Shakir in 2008.
The Obama Administration did a better job in selecting the Muslim participants in the preceding roundtable with Obama, but still included Imam Khalid Latif, who was a board member of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in 2008. The FBI’s official policy prohibits using CAIR as a liaison partner because of evidence linking it to Hamas. The New York chapter has been a particularly radical chapter of CAIR.
Hit: Advising Muslims to respond to negativity by rejecting extremist views and maintaining patriotism.
After ISIS’ attacks in Paris, Clarion Project wrote here and explained on Fox News how the group’s supporters were salivating at the prospect of reprisals against innocent Muslims. ISIS and other jihadists have a separatist view and want Muslims to see democracy as a failed concept for them and to accept Islamism as the alternative.
Obama urged Muslims not to respond to anti-Muslim sentiment by validating these views, decreasing their patriotism or accepting propaganda legitimizing hostility towards the West. He said:
“You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American. (Applause). Don’t grow cynical. Don’t respond to ignorance by embracing a worldview that suggests you must choose between your faith and your patriotism. Don’t believe that you have to choose between your best impulses and somewhat embrace a worldview that pits us against each other—or, even worse, glorifies violence.”
Miss: Failing to endorse or at least include the best Muslim allies for this cause, even if they are less resourced and well known.
Imagine what would have happened if Obama gave global coverage to the declaration of the Muslim Reform Movement, putting them on at least equal footing with the Islamists. Imagine the shiver down the spine of the Islamists who have defamed them essentially as “apostates,” all the while touting their own professed inclusiveness and moderation.
Imagine if Obama used the microphone of the White House to form a common thread between Muslim activists against Islamism everywhere: From Malala Yousefzai to the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam who cursed off Islamists promoting separatism in Europe; from the Muslims of the Green Movement who protested against the Iranian regime in 2009 to the Muslims who demonstrated and defeated the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia; from the Muslims in Libya, who asked for U.S. help in their fight against Islamist militias and held pro-American rallies after Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed, to the Syrian protestors who greeted the American ambassador with cheers, roses and olive branches.
Just outside the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Muslim women protested the mosque for its gender separation and inequality. Asra Nomani wrote a powerful op-ed about Obama’s choice of venue. She pointed out how photos from 2010 showed the “second-class conditions women endure in spaces akin to a ‘penalty box.'”
Imagine what a quick photo-op with the Muslim women would have caused. Think of the attention to their cause and productive dialogue that it would have spurred simply due to a choice by the Obama Administration to be inclusive of Muslim reformers and their progressive agenda.
Watch President Barack Obama’s full speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore:
ABOUT RYAN MAURO
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.