CATONSVILLE, Md. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama made his first visit to a U.S. mosque on Wednesday, in an effort to allay the fears of Americans accustomed to pop-culture portrayals of Muslims as terrorists, and to reassure Muslim American youth about their place in the nation.
Obama, declaring that attacks on Islam were an attack on all religions, decried the “inexcusable political rhetoric” against Muslims from Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates.
“We have to understand that an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths,” he said at the mosque outside of Baltimore, which he said had received threats twice in the past year. “When any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up.”
Trump, the Republican front-runner, called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States after authorities described a California couple who killed 14 people last December as radicalized Muslims inspired by Islamic State militants.
Obama’s visit was aimed at showing Americans another side of Islam. Before he spoke, Cub Scouts who attend a school run by the mosque carried the American and Maryland state flags into the prayer hall, a plain room save for a three rows of window panes, 99 in all, each depicting one of the names of Allah in Arabic.
“Think of your own church or synagogue or temple, and a mosque like this will be very familiar,” said Obama, who, following Islamic custom, took off his shoes to enter the hall.
The children led the audience, with some men in prayer caps and most women in head scarves, in the Pledge of Allegiance. A man and a woman recited a verse from the Koran about tolerance and inclusion.
Obama, a Christian, outlined the tenets of Islam, and gave a brief history of Muslims in America. He noted that founding father Thomas Jefferson specifically mentioned Muslims when he spoke about the American right to freedom of religion.
“Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim, so I was not the first,” said Obama, who has long been accused of secretly being a Muslim, to a roar of laugher. “I’m in good company,” he said.
Obama asked a row of Muslim American military service members to stand, as well as Ibtihaj Muhammad, a member of the U.S. fencing team who will be the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab, or head scarf, in this year’s Rio Olympics.
The president touched on pop-culture depictions of Muslims as terrorists. “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security, Obama said.
Turning to extremist groups such as Islamic State and what he characterized as perverted versions of Islam portrayed by them, Obama urged regular Muslims to “show who you are. To use a little Christian expression - let your light shine.”
Later, he told a crowd of cheering children, who had packed the mosque’s gymnasium to watch his speech on large screens, that one day they too could become president.
Obama urged young Muslims not to embrace a worldview that required them to choose between faith and patriotism.
“You fit in here. Right here,” he said. “You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”
Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Jeff Mason; Editing by James Dalgleish and Jonathan Oatis