The United States is a country divided. Discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities is alive and well. But the deepest divide lies along partisan lines and with the 2016 presidential race heating up, the gulf between the Democrats and the Republicans has become increasingly evident. Republican presidential candidates have chosen to use fear and insecurity arising out of terrorist incidents to build a poisonous narrative against the Muslim community, with Donald Trump having gone so far as to demand that Muslim visitors to the country be banned. In this backdrop, President Barack Obama’s first-ever visit to a mosque on US soil while in office is a welcome attempt to address this rhetoric. No longer concerned about re-election or ‘optics’, his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque has been appreciated by Muslim groups, which have been trying for years for the president to make this symbolic gesture against religious discrimination.
In his speech at the mosque, President Obama thanked the Muslim community for its contribution to American society and told his listeners: “You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.” His speech was meant not only to reassure American Muslims of their place in society but is also an effort to convince American voters not to buy into hate-mongering and divisive politics. There is, however, little chance of that happening at least as far as the right wing segments of the US are concerned. While the president’s own party is firmly in favour of religious harmony, on the other side of the aisle things are radically different. His speech repeated the same calls for peace and understanding which were made by President Bush following the 9/11 attacks, but this time round the game of one-upmanship being played in the Republican camp has led to there being a caustic reaction. Both Trump and Marco Rubio have criticised the president’s visit to the mosque and his speech. While their comments are calculated to get the most votes, President Obama has rightly risen above divisive politics and displayed the kind of leadership that is badly needed in many Western countries where Islamophobia is on the rise.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2016.