In the last year of his presidency, President Obama has cast off the self-restraint he seems to have exercised since the beginning of his first term in 2008.
Some of this has been rhetorical and other parts of it have been actions, such as his executive order to upgrade gun sale background checks.
The president took a bold action on Wednesday when he visited a mosque for the first time in his presidency. Ideally this would not be a big deal, but in this time of national hysteria when Muslims are being demonized, his visit sent a loud message. Mr. Obama understands history better than many of the Republican presidential candidates, such as Donald Trump, and has been trying to counter demogoguery and call Americans to the highest ideals of their heritage.
Another factor making this visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque bold is that, reflecting both xenophobia and political polarization, many on the right have been insisting for years that Mr. Obama is some type of secret Muslim. Indeed, according to a CNN/ORC poll taken last September, 43 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Americans think he is a Muslim. As the New York Times wrote in an article this week about the visit, the president's "aides feared a mosque visit would feed into that perception."
At the mosque, Mr. Obama strongly made the point that Muslim citizens play an important part in many segements of American life. In fact, the two U.S. Congressmen who are Muslims were present for the visit, Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Andre Carson of Indiana, also a Democrat.
The president made his visit a milestone by giving a long and expansive speech, touching on numerous issues on the place of Muslims in the United States. "I know that in Muslim communities across our country, this is a time of concern and, frankly, a time of some fear. Like all Americans, you're worried about the threat of terrorism," he said. "But on top of that, as Muslim Americans, you also have another concern — and that is your entire community so often is targeted or blamed for the violent acts of the very few."
The American Muslim community is relatively small and many people do not know, or do not know that they know, any Muslims. So the president presented what he called "some basic facts."
."For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam's message of peace. And the very word itself, Islam, comes from salam — peace," he said. "And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity. Whoever wants to enter paradise, the Prophet Muhammad taught, 'let him treat people the way he would love to be treated.'"
Mr. Obama also countered a monolithic view of Muslims. "The world's 1.6 billion Muslims are as diverse as humanity itself. They are Arabs and Africans. They're from Latin America to Southeast Asia," he said. "They are white and brown and black. There's a large African American Muslim community. That diversity is represented here today. A 14-year-old boy in Texas who's Muslim spoke for many when he wrote to me and said, 'We just want to live in peace.'"
The president also pointed to some little-known history: "Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim," he said. "Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America's first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. America's oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford's assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago."
It would not have been news had the president visited a church of synagogue this week. Rather than scapegoating all Muslims for the acts of a few, All Americans should hope and work for the day when such a presidential visit to a mosque will seem routine.