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President Obama took office in January 2009 eager to speak to Muslims around the world on behalf of Americans, looking to reset a relationship poisoned by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Seven years later, Obama makes his first visit to a U.S. mosque on Wednesday, eager to speak to America on behalf of its Muslim citizens, looking to counter what the White House describes as poisonous election-year rhetoric from Republicans.
“We have seen an alarming willingness on the part of some Republicans to try to marginalize law-abiding, patriotic Muslim Americans, and it is offensive,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “We have seen a willingness on the part of leading Republican presidential candidates to try to appeal to people’s fears and anxieties.”
White House aides say Obama won’t call out any Republicans by name during his visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque. But they privately say that the spark for the president’s visit was Trump’s call to halt Muslim immigration to the United States, a proposal that drew condemnation from some — but not all — of the bombastic billionaire’s rivals to be the Republican standard-bearer in 2016, and won considerable support in Congress. Obama’s advisers also bristle at charges from some in the GOP that Islam is inherently prone to violence. And administration officials worry that coverage overseas of Trump’s remarks could fuel what one called a “false impression that we are at war with Islam.” Republicans have often countered that Obama’s refusal to brand the enemy “Islamic extremists” is a nod to politically correct sensibilities that shows he does not take the threat seriously.
Public opinion polls in late 2015 found that a majority of Republican voters backed Trump’s idea. Democrats overwhelmingly rejected it, and most independents sided with them.
Among the key audiences for Obama’s remarks is America’s Muslim community, which he needs to have as an ally against home-grown extremists, like those who carried out the deadly attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.
“We will have more success in our efforts to prevent that if we work effectively with the Muslim community to confront that threat as opposed to branding everybody who attends a mosque as a potential enemy of the United States of America,” Earnest said Tuesday.
Seven years ago, Obama’s key audience was Muslims around the world, a constituency he described as vital to allied efforts to stamp out the kind of violent extremism that plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Back then, the centerpiece of his outreach was a June 2009 speech at Cairo University in which he pleaded for “a new beginning,” acknowledged “civilization’s debt to Islam” and highlighted the contributions of American Muslims.
President Obama tours the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)
“They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building and lit the Olympic Torch,” he said.
Obama is certain to echo that part of his Cairo message on Wednesday as he visits the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque, holds a round table with key community figures and makes remarks.
Obama has visited mosques in Cairo and Jakarta as president, but never before one on U.S. soil. He has delivered impassioned pleas for religious acceptance before, as recently as his appearance at the House Democrats’ annual retreat and his State of the Union address, and years earlier when he defended plans to build a mosque near ground zero in New York City. He has continued the practice of holding annual dinners at the White House to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Obama officials cite an unlikely model for this latest outreach: George W. Bush. They note with approval Bush’s visit to the Islamic Center of Washington just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes.
Bush had declared a “war on terrorism” not quite 12 hours after the attacks. But he hurried to the Islamic Center of Washington, a mosque and cultural center, less than a week later, quoted the Quran, and warned that Americans unleashing their anger on fellow Americans who follow Islam “represent the worst of humankind.”
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war,” he said.
Bush worked enormously hard for eight years to tamp down anti-Islam sentiment at home, though policies like the war in Iraq undercut his outreach to Muslims around the world. Aides frequently observed in private that “public diplomacy” messaging efforts to win over Middle Eastern audiences couldn’t compete with the reality of America policies that angered Muslims.
And Bush tried to shape his language to avoid offending followers of Islam overseas. He shied from describing America’s enemies as “Islamic terrorists,” though for a brief time in 2006 he called them “Islamic radicals,” only to drop the expression after Saudi Arabia objected. Early on he dubbed the war on terrorism a “crusade,” a bland term in the West that remains deeply controversial for many Middle Eastern Muslims. Angry with himself over the unnecessary provocation, Bush in June 2004 trimmed Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous D-Day message to leave out a reference to “the great crusade” of defeating Nazi Germany.
Some former Obama aides say this president faces some of the same challenges overseas — that policies like his drone war outweigh earnest diplomatic entreaties for popular support. But many praise Bush’s efforts.
“That was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11, when he basically said, after going to a mosque in Washington, ‘We are not at war with Islam or Muslims,’” former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said at a Democratic debate in November.
At home, it’s unclear what sort of clout Obama’s message will have as his consequential two-term presidency winds down — and with whom. But he’ll avoid picking fights with any Republicans by name on Wednesday, even if his targets are obvious, his spokesman said.
According to Earnest, “I wouldn’t expect any of the candidates tomorrow to enjoy the benefit of being singled out by the president of the United States.”
Candidate Obama inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and promised to end them. But his successor will inherit conflicts in both countries — a sobering reality not lost on anyone at the White House. That Obama started his term with outreach to Muslim audiences in Cairo and ends it reaching out to Muslim audiences in Baltimore shows that the next president will also take up a war of words that began shortly after 9/11.