President Obama delivered a historic speech at a Baltimore mosque Wednesday to a room full of about 200 American Muslims, myself included. Most of his speech, though, wasn't really aimed at Muslims at all, but rather at the rest of America. It wasn't as much a speech to Muslims as it was a speech for Muslims.
It was a speech designed to educate the American public about the positive role Muslims have played in this country; to remind Americans that pluralism and religious liberty are core to the American project; and to speak to those who, in Obama's view, would divide our country with fear and suspicion and hatred of Muslims.
"We're one American family," he said, and "when any part of our family starts to feel separate or second-class or targeted, it tears at the very fabric of our nation."
When Obama did address Muslims directly, it was not to lecture about the need for Muslims to do more to counter extremism, as such speeches typically go, but rather to highlight the work Muslims are already doing on this and to pledge his and America's support as a partner in this effort.
The speech was well-received by the 200-some American Muslims in the audience — whom I happened to be among — and not just because it challenged Islamophobia and championed the rights of American Muslims, but for how it changed the usual conversation about acceptance of Islam in America.
"I think a lot of people expected his speech to focus largely on national security, but it went beyond that," Riham Osman, communications coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told me as we chatted after the speech. "His speech was about the contributions of American Muslims to society and how we need to reclaim our narrative."
"People keep asking why he took so long to visit a mosque," Osman continued, "but I think what's more important is the fact that he did make the decision to visit a mosque. We needed his presence now and his remarkable words at this moment more than ever."
Ultimately, Obama's speech was a powerful affirmation that Muslims belong in this country and that saying or acting otherwise is a betrayal of everything America stands for. It's something that everyone in this country — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — could stand to hear right now.
A message to all Americans on behalf of Muslims
Obama opened with a brief history of Muslims in America, which he said was to educate Americans who "only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film."
He noted that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both owned copies of the Quran and that a Muslim American designed Chicago's skyscrapers — facts, he acknowledged, that were already "obvious to many of the people in this place." And, indeed, they are facts that American Muslims are accustomed to rehearsing, reciting over and over to those who challenge our right to be part of this country.
"Religious liberty is essential not only to protect religion but because religion helps strengthen our nation," he said. But this required more than just the separation of church and state, he argued.
"If we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up."
This was not just a reference to actual hate crimes, although those have spiked recently. It also referred to the rhetorical and political attacks on Muslims, particularly from some Republican presidential candidates — many of whom strongly emphasize their Christian faith.
Wardah Khalid, an independent Middle East policy analyst also at the speech, told me, "It seemed like more of a message to Americans than to Muslim Americans."
The remarkable break from how Islamophobia speeches usually go
These sorts of speeches, whether from Obama or some other American political leader, almost always include an "on the other hand..." section urging American Muslims to do more to combat violent extremism.
That's understandable, and perhaps it makes such speeches more palatable for non-Muslims by demonstrating some sort of even-handedness. But it has the effect of making American Muslims feel as if our acceptance is conditional, and can feed into the message that American Muslims are presumed guilty of somehow perpetuating violent extremism until affirmatively proven otherwise.
So in the brief section of his speech devoted to violence, extremism, and terror, instead of telling Muslims to do more to combat violent extremism, Obama did something remarkable: He told Americans what Muslims are already doing.
"Here at this mosque, and across our country and around the world, Muslim leaders are roundly and repeatedly and consistently condemning terrorism. And around the globe, Muslims who’ve dared to speak out have often been targeted and even killed. So those voices are there; we just have to amplify them more."
He pledged to help Muslims in this effort — rather than demanding that Muslims do more for him: "America will be your partner. We will — I will — do everything I can to lift up the multiplicity of Muslim voices that promote pluralism and peace."
But perhaps the most poignant part of the speech was when he delivered a message specifically to young Muslims. It's worth quoting in full here:
I want to speak directly to the young people who may be listening. In our lives, we all have many identities. We are sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters. We’re classmates; Cub Scout troop members. We’re followers of our faith. We’re citizens of our country.
And today, there are voices in this world, particularly over the Internet, who are constantly claiming that you have to choose between your identities — as a Muslim, for example, or an American.
Do not believe them.
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.
Yet even though that part was clearly addressed directly to young Muslims, it also communicated a much broader message to all Americans: I, the president of the United States, declare unequivocally that these people belong here.
Asking non-Muslim Americans to relate as parents
Obama was not only speaking as the leader of a divided country; he was also speaking as a dad. Throughout the speech, he mentioned letters he'd received from Muslim children and parents around the country telling him how scared they are because of the level of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country these days and how they feel like "second-class citizens."
This seems to have resonated with Obama, who has two teenage daughters himself. After describing several of these letters, he said, "These are children just like mine. And the notion that they would be filled with doubt and questioning their places in this great country of ours at a time when they’ve got enough to worry about — it’s hard being a teenager already — that’s not who we are. "
Implicitly, he was also asking other parents in America to make the same leap, to see the damage being done to children just like theirs, to put themselves in the shoes of parents watching their kids feeling alienated and outcast.
It's not clear why Obama chose this moment to speak up. Maybe the climate has become so toxic and hateful recently that he just couldn't take it anymore, and maybe he feels that now that he's at the end of his presidency he can safely express support for Muslims without suffering political consequences. But the fact that this is even a consideration the White House would have to make shows why this speech was important.