It only took him seven years. But maybe it was worth the wait.
On Wednesday afternoon, the president of the United States mounted a podium inside a Maryland mosque to give a much-trailed speech challenging the rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in his country. (Although, as the author and lawyer Qasim Rashid joked on Twitter, “I heard @POTUS wants to make his landmark address at a mosque a truly authentic American Muslim experience, so he’s arriving an hour late.”)
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Born to a Muslim father from Kenya, raised from the age of six to 10 by a Muslim stepfather in Indonesia, Barack Hussein Obama has been dogged by crazy, conspiratorial claims that he is a “secret Muslim” ever since he first declared his candidacy for president.
A recent poll found that 29 percent of Americans and 43 percent of Republicans still believe Obama is a Muslim and, as Salon noted: “The number of Republicans who think Obama is a Muslim has actually increased since 2010.” For the record, the president is a Christian who had both of his daughters baptised.
It cannot be stated often enough that the astonishing prejudice, not to mention sheer ignorance, displayed by Republican voters in states such as Iowa – where only 49 percent of them believe Islam should be legal – is the product of a well-funded and coordinated campaign to demonise Islam and Muslims in the US.
This has ranged from nonsensical protests against “creeping sharia” to a manufactured controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque; from claims that Hillary Clinton’s chief aide is part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the US government, to smears against a Muslim ninth-grader in Texas who was wrongfully arrested for bringing a home-made clock (a bomb!) to school.
In party-political terms, Islamophobia is now a vote-winner in right-wing Republican circles. How else to explain the number of Republican Party presidential candidates falling over one another to find new and obscene ways to bash Muslims? The campaign has seen Donald Trump call for a ban on Muslims entering the US, Ben Carson refusing to countenance a Muslim president and “moderate” Jeb Bush demanding that the US government focus its support on Christian, rather than Muslim, refugees from Syria.
On Wednesday, the commander-in-chief pushed back. Obama loudly denounced “distorted media portrayals” of Islam and the people “conflating the horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith”. He condemned the “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country” and drew a causal link between hate speech and violence.
Putting aside some of my own criticisms of Obama's domestic and foreign policies for a moment, let me say this, on behalf of my Muslim-American daughters and my headscarf-wearing Muslim-American wife, who has been verbally abused on the streets of this nation's capital: thank you, Mr President.
“No surprise, then, that threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged,” he told his audience in Maryland. “Here at this mosque, twice last year, threats were made against your children. Around the country, women wearing the hijab … have been targeted. We’ve seen children bullied. We’ve seen mosques vandalised.” The first non-white president of the US also had no qualms about identifying the racial component of Islamophobia: “Sikh Americans and others who are perceived to be Muslims have been targeted, as well.”
Dismissing talk of a “clash of civilisations between the West and Islam”, Obama refused to ask Muslim Americans to choose between their identities. “You’re not Muslim or American,” declaimed the president. “You’re Muslim and American.”
To which the only sane response from any Muslim, and anyone who claims to care about racial equality or religious liberty, surely has to be: Hallelujah!
Yes, Obama has been silent on the issue of growing Islamophobia for far too long (though, to his credit, he did slam Trump’s anti-Muslim vitriol in his State of the Union speech in January).
Yes, he should have visited a US mosque much earlier in his presidency: it is scandalous that Obama’s trip to the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday was his first appearance at a mosque on US soil since entering the White House (a mosque which, as it happens, is less than 50 miles from his Pennsylvania Avenue home).
A belated denunciation of anti-Muslim bigotry from the president of the US, in front of a Muslim audience in a mosque, is a denunciation nevertheless. A much-needed denunciation from the most important public figure in the land. Would some of his Muslim critics, I wonder, prefer it if he had not given the speech?
In fact, given the rise of Trump and the fallout from the massacre in San Bernardino, California, Obama’s timing, ironically and unwittingly, couldn’t have been better. “Coming to a mosque is a public reminder that Muslims have been part of America since our nation’s founding,” Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates told CNN in the run-up to the event.
A public reminder in an era in which, as the president himself openly acknowledged and the statistics clearly demonstrate, there has been a surge in the number of attacks on Muslims and mosques in the US.
A public reminder, to quote Obama, that “an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths,” especially in the midst of a Republican primary campaign in which proudly Christian candidates rush to smear and stigmatise Muslims. (Marco Rubio, incidentally, claimed Obama’s mosque visit was another example of him “pitting people against each other”; Trump sneered that the president “feels comfortable there”.)
As I have argued elsewhere, Obama’s own official statements and policies on counterterrorism and civil liberties issues have been far from perfect. From NSA spying on Muslim Americans to drone strikes in Pakistan, from anti-Muslim profiling at US airports to support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the president has undoubtedly upset, frustrated and angered millions of Muslims at home and abroad.
Some might justifiably argue that his administration’s militarism and surveillance helped to incite the fear of, and hatred towards, Muslim Americans that he so eloquently rebuked in his speech on Wednesday.
Cynics, therefore, may dismiss Obama’s mosque speech as mere rhetoric. But rhetoric matters. Those who argue that the president’s speech won’t, or can’t, have an impact are either naive or disingenuous.
As Christopher Smith, of Claremont University, has demonstrated, one of the best ways to combat anti-Muslim bigotry is a “bipartisan effort by government and media to avert discrimination by framing Islam in a positive way”.
It may indeed be depressing and disturbing that, in 2016, the US president feels compelled to make a speech reminding Muslim Americans that “you’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too”. But, to be honest, I’m glad he did. And I also worry whether the next president will even bother.
At the very beginning of his address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, Obama told his audience that he wanted to say “two words that Muslim Americans don’t hear often enough – and that is, thank you.”
“Thank you for serving your community,” he continued. “Thank you for lifting up the lives of your neighbours, and for helping keep us strong and united as one American family.”
So, putting aside some of my own criticisms of Obama’s domestic and foreign policies for a moment, let me say this, on behalf of my Muslim-American daughters and my headscarf-wearing Muslim-American wife, who has been verbally abused on the streets of this nation’s capital: thank you, Mr President. Thank you for standing up to anti-Muslim bigotry and racial demagoguery; thank you for challenging the “New McCarthyism” that is Islamophobia.
Better late than never.
Mehdi Hasan is an award-winning journalist, author, political commentator and the presenter of Head to Head and UpFront.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.