President Obama on Friday made an impassioned plea to Americans that they express religious tolerance toward ordinary Muslims and understand that the nation’s true enemies are Al Qaeda and like-minded Islamist extremists.
This year’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurs in a context of controversy and apprehension driven by a Florida pastor’s plan to burn the Quran and by a planned Islamic center and mosque near ground zero in New York, among other things. Asked about this mood at his Friday midday press conference, Mr. Obama said tough economic times and general anxiety can produce societal divisions.
Then he added that he admired the way President George W. Bush in those harrowing days after 9/11 made it clear that the US was not at war with Islam itself.
“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts,” said Obama.
Millions of Muslim Americans are US citizens, the president noted. They are neighbors, coworkers, and fellow students. They serve in the US military.
“You know, we have to make sure that we don’t start turning on each other,” Obama said. “And I will do everything I can, as long as I am president of the United States, to remind the American people that we are one nation, under God. And we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation.”
Asked specifically about the plans of Florida pastor Terry Jones to burn Qurans on Sept. 11, Obama said burning the sacred texts of someone else’s religion is not what America stands for.
In addition, he said that, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, it is his obligation to speak out against acts that would put US troops in harm’s way. Pastor Jones’s plans have already led to riots in Kabul, Afghanistan, and would undoubtedly be used by Al Qaeda as a recruiting tool, said Obama.
The president said his worry was not so much Jones himself as the possibility that the pastor's actions could breed copycats, leading to an unending, media-driven uproar.
“Part of my concern is to make sure that we don’t start having a whole bunch of folks all across the country think this is the way to get attention,” said Obama.
Asked whether it is a policy failure that the Obama administration has not captured or killed Osama bin Laden, the president said finding the Al Qaeda leader remains a priority. The best minds in the intelligence business are working on it, he said. He claimed that increased pressure on Al Qaeda leaders has forced them to go deeper underground and made it more difficult for them to operate.
Pressed as to whether this situation would continue indefinitely, with Americans facing a terror threat stretching across generations, Obama said the US ultimately would be able to stamp out the Islamist terrorist problem, but that it would take a long time.
But the US should not start overreacting, or lose sight of what defines the country, he said.
“We are tougher than them. Our families and our businesses and our churches and mosques and synagogues and our Constitution and our values, that’s what gives us strength,” Obama said.