President Barack Obama used the June 22 Iftar dinner, the celebration of Ramadan held at the White House annually since 1996, to establish a point about religious intolerance in the U.S. He referred to many Americans as having a skewed perception of the Muslim community.
“Here in America, many people personally don’t know someone who is Muslim,” Obama said. “They mostly hear about Muslims in the news — and that can obviously lead to a very distorted impression.”
Islamic State group is the Muslim population that has been dominating the American news cycle lately, so it makes sense that Americans view the religion with the “distorted impression” Obama describes. The militant group has been making gains in both Iraq and Syria, escalating the brutality of its campaign with bloody execution videos and senseless mass killing of minority groups.
Islamic State group’s goal is to establish a caliphate, which inextricably ties the group to Islamic faith. While it was somewhat easier to distance groups like al-Qaeda from their supposed religious ties, Islamic State group is on a clear mission to spread its own strict and repressive form of Islam.
Islamic State group's connection to Islam, as well as a relatively low exposure to Muslim communities in the U.S., makes many Americans equate the religion with violent extremism.
Obama’s remarks at the Iftar dinner emphasized the fallacies in those perceptions. Despite what Americans might "hear about Muslims in the news," Islamic State group is far from representing the entire Muslim population.
The president referenced the Quran multiple times in his speech, citing examples of how the brutality of groups like Islamic State group doesn’t fit in with the complete doctrine of the faith, although he didn't specifically mention Islamic State group by name.
“The Quran teaches us that God’s children should tread gently upon the earth and, when confronted by ignorance, reply ‘peace,’” Obama said. His words positioned the daily lives of Muslim Americans as they are: Far removed from the nature of those that use the religion to justify violent acts.
Obama’s message also touted the religious freedoms granted to those in the U.S. He praised Muslim Americans like Samantha Elauf, whose Supreme Court case guaranteed the right for workers to wear a hijab.
Considering the state of global affairs, in which anti-Islamic sentiments are growing stronger in Western nations, that reference is timely. Countries like France and Belgium have bans on full face veils, known as niqabs, as well as some restrictions on hijabs, which only cover the hair.
Obama’s respect towards Elauf and other dinner attendees seem to indicate that the U.S. is not as willing as other nations to sacrifice religious freedoms. Obama was also noticeably absent from the march in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, a move that sent the world a similar message.
These are unsurprising views for a president who has faced religiously charged accusations throughout his time in office. Obama has never shied away from the fact that he was exposed to multiple religions throughout his lifetime, writing in his book "The Audacity of Hope" that he attended a “predominantly Muslim school” in Indonesia.
Despite Obama’s own open-mindedness in regards to religion, he’s been subjected to consistent ignorance. Accusing Obama of being a Muslim has persisted as one of the most absurdly popular conspiracy theories of the past eight years, on par with accusing Bush of being involved in 9/11.
Yet Obama does have a personal connection to the Muslim community, and it’s important for him to use his position of leadership to spread messages about civil rights and religious tolerance.
It’s also important for the Muslim community to know that, despite the “distorted impression” of Islam perpetuated by groups like Islamic State group, the U.S. will always value peaceful religious freedom. The country can clearly fight against religious extremism abroad while supporting religious tolerance at home.