In his prime time address Sunday evening regarding the threat of violent extremism, President Obama appealed to Muslims at home and abroad to help counter the ideological narrative purveyed by groups like ISIS. Muslims must do more, he implied.
While the president couched this in an effort to "enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate," Mr. Obama nonetheless insisted that Muslims have a responsibility to act. "That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities," he said. "This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse."
This was not the first time Mr. Obama has called on Muslims to address the strain of extremism that has infected Islam. Yet by speaking directly to the nation from the Oval Office, Mr. Obama made one of his most direct statements about a problem that is more apparent than ever in the wake of the San Bernardino, California shooting.
Mr. Obama "has laid out the need to enlist Muslim-American communities in the past," CBS News senior national security analyst Juan Zarate said. "What was different here was the context and the extent of the message. It was a direct call to the community in the context of this growing threat. It was also a call not just to counter the violent dimensions of the ideology, but all of the elements of the ideology that run counter to broader Western values."
The president chose his language carefully to address Muslim Americans -- and to address Americans at large about the integral role that Muslim Americans play in society.
"Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes -- and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country," Mr. Obama said. "We have to remember that."
As CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett reported, Mr. Obama's call for the nation to come together is a response to the kind of rhetoric that's been used by some Republican presidential candidates.
While conservatives have long taken issue with the Obama administration failing to stress the specific threat of "radical Islam," the focus on Muslim Americans has in recent weeks become more intense, with presidential candidates suggesting increased surveillance on mosques in the U.S. or limitations on Muslim refugees entering the U.S.
"Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans -- of every faith -- to reject discrimination," the president said. "It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It's our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL."
Farah Pandith of the Council on Foreign Relations told CBS News that it is essential for the president, members of Congress and other U.S. leaders to reject the "us versus them" narrative that ISIS is using to recruit young Muslim Americans and others into their extreme ideology.
"The diversity of Muslim voices in our nation have the capacity to outpace and out-swarm the corrupt, crazy ideology of extremists with counter-narratives and credible voices," she said. "But that requires us to get them on board, and we can't do that if we're producing an 'us versus them' framework."
Moreover, buying into that narrative would simply be un-American. "It is really vital that the commander in chief -- no matter who the commander in chief is, whatever party -- sets the tone for who we are as Americans," Pandith said.
Throughout our history, Pandith pointed out, U.S. presidents have stressed the importance of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. When President George Washington called for giving "bigotry no sanction" he set a precedent; when President Eisenhower gave his support for the foundation of the Islamic Center of Washington, and when President George W. Bush visited that center just six days after September 11, 2001, they followed in Washington's footsteps.
President Obama has since Day One of his presidency has tried to strike a balance between tolerance and accountability when engaging with the Muslim community at home and abroad.
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said in his 2009 inaugural address. "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."
Walking that fine line has prompted some to question the rhetoric and the strategic focus of the administration, as Mr. Obama and his officials have warned against linking Islam to extremism.
"Initially the president and the administration were quite reluctant to acknowledge or focus on the underlying ideology that drives the movement that al Qaeda and ISIS represent," Zarate said. "They purposefully veered away from talking about the ideology and attempting to describe it. The challenge now in the wake of Boston, Benghazi, Fort Hood, Chattanooga, San Bernardino, is to recognize that there are theological elements of this narrative that are drawing adherents and need to be confronted through a religious context."
While Mr. Obama has sought to respectfully engage with the Muslim world, he's also noted repeatedly that Muslim leaders need to step up to address extremism.
"The most vicious terrorist organizations at the moment are ones that claim to be speaking on behalf of true Muslims," the president said at a press conference in Turkey last month. "And I do think that Muslims around the world--religious leaders, political leaders, ordinary people--have to ask very serious questions about how did these extremist ideologies take root, even if it's only affecting a very small fraction of the population. It is real and it is dangerous."
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