It is extraordinary that it took until February, 2016 for President Obama to make his first official visit to an American mosque – right at the end of his second term in office. Islamist propaganda has always cast the War on Terror as a war by the West against the whole of Islam on a global scale. Arguably, by not visiting a mosque during most of his term, the President had unwittingly bolstered that narrative. After all, why not visit a mosque?
In the United States as of 2014, according to Pew, there were 2.75m Muslims. By 2050, they will surpass those who identify themselves as Jewish. They are mostly anti-extremist, even believing that their faith leaders have not done enough to speak out on this issue – again, according to Pew. On the other hand, there is a widespread view that post-9/11 anti-terror legislation has impacted disproportionately on Muslims.
Obama finally decided to cross the threshold of a mosque in response to comments made by Donald Trump while running as the Republican presidential candidate. He told the congregation:
If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.
Muslims themselves have moved decisively towards a reconciled identity in the US adopting increasingly liberal attitudes on homosexuality and abortion. Politically, they trend towards the Democrats and in spite of high rates of business formation and suburban lifestyles nevertheless believe in bigger not small government.
But in spite of these encouraging signs of assimilation, Republicans are noticeably cool about their Muslim fellow citizens and even Democrats are not reportedly warm. Democrat attitudes to Muslims could best be described as neutral compared to outright suspicion among Republicans.
It is wrong and dangerous to conflate American Muslims with Islamist extremists. Successive surveys have revealed a community that is happy to adhere to American values and salute the flag. Yet Obama left it very late in his presidency to reach out to Muslims. Even George Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington after 9/11 to boldly state that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam”.
If we want to drive Muslims into the hands of Islamists, there are two proven ways to achieve this:
- Put the whole of Islam and Islamist extremism in the same bucket and depict both as some kind of civilizational threat
- Encourage a sense of victimhood among Muslims slowly convincing them that it is impossible to live as a Muslim in the United States (and only caliphate governed by sharia law will offer real protection)
The antidote to the above is to make a clear distinction between the majority of law abiding, patriotic Muslims as opposed to Islamist extremists – and deal with them very differently. Avoidance of victimhood narratives is also critical, instead disseminating stories of success and aspiration.
It would also help if presidents of the United States set foot more often in Muslim community venues to evidence that they are as much a part of the fabric of the US as Catholics, evangelicals and Jews.