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Obama decries "inexcusable" rhetoric against Muslim Americans

During his Wednesday visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, President Obama slammed the use of "inexcusable political rhetoric" against Muslim Americans, just as advocates say the population is facing increasing levels of hate crime and biased speech.

"In Muslim communities, this is a time of concern and frankly some fear," the president told an audience at the Islamic Society campus, which contains a mosque and school. The visit Wednesday marks his first trip to a U.S. mosque since taking office.

On top of terrorism, he said "as Muslim Americans, you also have another concern."

"Your entire community so often is targeted," he continued, "for the violent acts of a few....We've seen children bullied and mosques vandalized."

"You've seen too often people conflating the horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith," he added.

The president laid part of the blame on television news and media reports, which often "gives this hugely distorted impression" of Muslims.

He added that it was "no surprise" then that "threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged."

Later, the president also called on better representation and diversity in television shows, saying that "it's not that hard to do" to have Muslim characters on television in roles "unrelated to national security.

On the current political climate, the president harshly condemned the "inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country."

"When any part of our family starts to feel separate," he said, "it tears at the very fabric of our nation."

The president also pulled on lessons from history in his speech, saying that "Islam has always been part of America" and citing the faith brought to America by some slaves in colonial times.

"This is not a new thing," he added, "generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation."

In a moment of levity, the president also jokingly drew a parallel to himself and American founding father Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, Mr. Obama said, also had political opponents who similarly "tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim."

"No, it's true, it's true," the president said. "Look it up -- I'm in good company."

Broadly, for the young people who wonder if they "fit in" in America, the president had a succinct, forceful message: "You fit in here. Right here. You're right where you belong. You're part of America too."

At the same time, the president acknowledged the growing acts of terrorism perpetrated by those who claim Islamic affiliation.

"It is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam. This is the truth," Mr. Obama said. "Right now, there is an organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts....They combine it with false claims that America and the West are at war with Islam."

The president called on Muslim Americans to "play a role" in the fight against groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"It can't just be the work of any one faith alone," the president said.