Seven years after becoming president, Barack Obama finally showed up at a mosque, met with American Muslims young and old, and gave a good speech. He celebrated their Americanness and applauded their contributions to American life while at the same time calling for vigilance against extremist interpretations of their faith. It was just what a president should do.
The speech had some nice historical touches that are worth noting.
Obama pointed out that Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach [omitted: “Mohammedanism”] to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Here, in his autobiography, Franklin is recalling the visit of George Whitefield, the preacher of the Great Awakening who held his revivals out of doors in part because the local clergy didn’t want him in their churches. After Whitefield left Philadelphia, money was raised to build a large hall for anyone of any religious persuasion to preach.
Obama also did the Abrahamic thing: “Christians, Jews, Muslims — we’re all, under our faiths, descendants of Abraham. So mere tolerance of different religions is not enough. Our faiths summon us to embrace our common humanity.”
This alludes to George Washington’s famous letter to the Jews of Newport, in which the first president thanked “the stock of Abraham” for welcoming him to their synagogue, writing, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
Finally, the speech had this:
By the way, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim — so I was not the first — (applause.) No, it’s true, it’s true. Look it up. (Laughter.) I’m in good company. (Laughter.)
I looked it up and it’s a bit of a stretch. During the bitter election of 1800, the Connecticut [now Hartford] Courant joined in the Federalist assault on Jefferson as an unbeliever, opining that no one seemed to know “whether Mr. Jefferson believes in the heathen mythology or in the alcoran (Quran); whether he is a Jew or a Christian; whether he believes in one God, or in many; or in none at all.”
Obama may be forgiven for exaggerating this Jefferson precedent, just as he may be forgiven for taking a shot at those who have criticized him as failing to call a spade a spade when it comes to al-Qaeda and ISIS: “And the suggestion is somehow that if I would simply say, these are all Islamic terrorists, then we would actually have solved the problem by now, apparently.”
Obama’s defense is that doing so would legitimize such groups (and individuals) by recognizing their claims to be speaking for Islam and defending Muslims. His critics would do well to ponder the point.
Speaking of whom, Marco Rubio had this to say about the speech during a town hall meeting in Dover, N.H.:
Look at today. He gave a speech at a mosque, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. This constant pitting people against each other, I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly.
So it’s hurting our country badly for Obama to say (in his only use of the term), “Now, finally, just as all Americans have a responsibility to reject discrimination — I’ve said this before — Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies that are trying to penetrate within Muslim communities.” And Rubio’s the best hope of establishmentarian Republicans to avoid the Scylla of Trump and the Charybdis of Cruz?
Let the record show that Jeb Bush responded very differently. On the Hugh Hewitt show he suggested that Obama should have visited a mosque earlier in his presidency and said, “If it was a good speech, I’m happy, because I think it’s important for the president to lead in this regard.” That’s how grownups behave.