It's unfortunate that in 2016 a president of the United States has to speak out against medieval-era religious bigotry. But it was necessary to do so.
Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore to speak about Muslim-Americans' part in U.S. society and defend them against the bigoted rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates and their followers. The threat from Islamic terrorists like ISIS and al-Qaida is real, but to brand all Muslims because of the actions of a few is not only unfair it is, unfortunately, far from unprecedented in America.
When Americans get scared, they too often strike out against the "other" at the root of their fears, even if the perceived enemy is a fellow American. The internment camps set up to imprison innocent Japanese-Americans would be a particularly shameful example.
When it comes to Muslim-Americans, the fear-mongers are in full voice this presidential election year, with Republicans outdoing each other in ratcheting up the hysteria level. Donald Trump thinks Muslims should be banned from entering the country. Ben Carson doesn't believe a Muslim-American should be able to become president. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio want to ban Muslims from the Middle East, where many are victims of both ISIS and the Syrian government. Even supposed moderates like Governor Jeb Bush want to parse refugees for admittance on a religious basis, allowing Christians in and keeping Muslims out.
Discriminating against people on a religious basis is as fundamentally un-American an action as any imaginable — supposed strict Constitutionalist Cruz should know this better than anyone. He almost assuredly does. It makes a nation that fancies itself big and brave look petty and small.
The Republicans are also playing into the hands of ISIS with words that serve as recruitment messages. To increase its ranks, ISIS needs to convince disaffected young Muslims that the world's most powerful nation hates them and is actively at war against them. That isn't true, but Trump and company are sending that message to Muslims in the Middle East and everywhere else.
It is ironic that it fell to President Obama to speak out against this message of hate considering that a CNN/ORC poll last fall found that 43 percent of Republicans believe the president is Muslim. It would be fine if he was, of course, but in fact he is a Christian. It is safe to assume that many of those attacking the president as a closet Muslim were outraged seven years ago about the controversial comments made by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the president's former pastor.
Speaking to his audience Wednesday at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, the president said he found particularly heartbreaking the worries of parents he had spoken to. "They talked about how their children were asking, 'Are we going to be forced out of the country? Are we going to be rounded up? Why do people treat us like this?' Conversations you shouldn't have to have with children. Not in this country." No, not in this country, of all countries, given our heritage, but this is what fear, hatred and ignorance produce, especially when there are votes to be scared out of people.
The threat of Islamic terror is a small one in America, certainly much smaller than the significant threat posed by angry, white men with guns. If the Republican candidates devoted as much verbiage to that real problem rather than to the imaginary one posed by average Muslims, America might be able to lower its gun-related body count.
"We can't be bystanders to bigotry," said the president Wednesday, and indeed bigotry can only be countered successfully if Americans who value the diversity that helps make America great stand up against it. As nasty as this election year will surely be, it will end reasonably well if Americans reject those who are determined to divide us by ethnic background and religious faith.