As Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to a U.S. mosque Wednesday, a number of observers asked the same question: What took him so long?
His second term is nearly over, and terrorist attacks overseas and at home have pushed anti-Muslim bias to levels not seen since after 9/11. Considering the damage Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric inflicts on America’s global image and security, Obama’s visit was a long overdue, but nevertheless prudent, gesture.
Not surprisingly, the president’s opponents found fault. They said the mosque he visited, at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, was a radical, extremist mosque.
Fox News said a former imam had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and to a northern Virginia mosque where the radical U.S. cleric Anwar al-Awlaki once preached. Awlaki was killed in a 2011 drone strike.
That’s flimsy reasoning. Given the Secret Service’s strong record in protecting our leaders, we doubt the agency would let a sitting U.S. president stroll into a den of potential suicide bombers.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say there was a stray ISIS sympathizer on the back row, a disaffected young man fond of watching ISIS propaganda videos.
Isn’t that young man precisely the person we want to reach with the kind of message Obama offered Wednesday?
“You fit in here,” he told the congregation. “You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America too.”
That might not grab as many headlines as a pledge to bomb the Middle East until the sand glows, but it’s far more effective in fighting the kind of home-grown terrorism that has rattled our collective nerves.
Consider the case of Justin Sullivan, the Morganton teenager now under indictment for killing an elderly neighbor and for plotting to kill up to 1,000 more people by attacking a concert, restaurant or other venue.
He’d been watching grisly beheading videos online, like many of the 71 or so people who have been arrested on ISIS-related charges in this country since March 2014. He had taken to calling himself “The Mujahid,” or guerrilla warrior, fighting for Allah and Islam.
What blocked his bloody ambitions? Not a Seal Team Six raid or an NSA wiretap. His parents grew concerned about his erratic behavior and dialed 911 to report him.
If we are to prevent homegrown terrorists like those in the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, we will need such help from the relatives of ISIS sympathizers across America. Stiff-arming Muslims with overly broad, nativist attacks on their religion makes us all less safe.
President Obama understands that, thankfully. So did George W. Bush before him.
Let’s pray the next president does as well.