WASHINGTON – An impassioned President Obama delivered a forceful plea for tolerance Friday, saying Muslim Americans should be treated like fellow citizens – not pariahs.
“We’ve got millions of Muslim-Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country,” Obama said in a White House news conference. “They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our co-workers.
“When we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?
“They are Americans, and we honor their service. Part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ It’s just ‘us.'”
Obama’s appeal for understanding came on a question about the wisdom of building a mosque near Ground Zero, the focus of a bitter argument in New York and beyond. A new Marist poll found New Yorkers oppose the mosque, 51% to 41%.
Obama put the controversy in a historical and national security framework, and spoke with more emotion than his usual clinical tone.
“This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights,” Obama said.
“One of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely.
“What that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.
“I recognize there are extraordinary sensibilities around 9/11, (but) we are not at war against Islam. We are at war against the terrorist organizations who have distorted Islam.”
Muslim groups hailed Obama’s remarks. Last month, he defended the right to build the mosque, but then hedged by saying he took no position on the choice of location.
“He’s showing he’s on the right side of history,” said Ahmed Rehab, Chicago executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“There was never any expectation that (Obama) would support a particular project” or its location, Rehab added. “There was an expectation that he would affirm religious freedom and respect for the law, and he’s done that.”
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