White HouseWritten by Don Byrd

As you all know, last weekend brought a horrible tragedy in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. My heart breaks for all those families dealing with such unspeakable, unexpected, unacceptable loss, and for the entire Orlando community, turned upside down by a hateful act of terror.  

Unfortunately, but predictably, Sunday’s violence also brought out some of the worst in politicians and candidates for office. We continue to hear divisive rhetoric and policy proposals, including a renewed call to close America’s borders to Muslims, and an insistence that the threat of terrorism should be cast in religious terms by calling it “radical Islam.”

In pointed remarks today, President Obama pushed back against this drumbeat and defended fundamental principles of religious liberty. 

Here is an excerpt from the White House transcript of President Obama’s powerful speech:

[T]here’s no magic to the phrase “radical Islam.”  It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy.  And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism.  Groups like ISIL and al Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West.  They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions.  They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people; that they speak for Islam.  That’s their propaganda.  That’s how they recruit.  And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion — then we’re doing the terrorists’ work for them.

[W]e are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be.  We’re starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we’re fighting, where this can lead us.  We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America.  We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests that entire religious communities are complicit in violence.  Where does this stop?  The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer — they were all U.S. citizens. 

Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently?  Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance?  Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith?  We’ve heard these suggestions during the course of this campaign.  Do Republican officials actually agree with this?  Because that’s not the America we want.  It doesn’t reflect our democratic ideals.  It won’t make us more safe; it will make us less safe — fueling ISIL’s notion that the West hates Muslims, making young Muslims in this country and around the world feel like no matter what they do, they’re going to be under suspicion and under attack.  It makes Muslim Americans feel like they’re [sic] government is betraying them.  It betrays the very values America stands for. 

We’ve gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear — and we came to regret it.  We’ve seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens.  And it has been a shameful part of our history. 

This is a country founded on basic freedoms, including freedom of religion.  We don’t have religious tests here.  Our Founders, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights are clear about that.  And if we ever abandon those values, we would not only make it a lot easier to radicalize people here and around the world, but we would have betrayed the very things we are trying to protect — the pluralism and the openness, our rule of law, our civil liberties — the very things that make this country great; the very things that make us exceptional.  And then the terrorists would have won.  And we cannot let that happen.  I will not let that happen.

Our diversity and our respect for one another, our drawing on the talents of everybody in this country, our making sure that we are treating everybody fairly — that we’re not judging people on the basis of what faith they are or what race they are, or what ethnicity they are, or what their sexual orientation is — that’s what makes this country great.  That’s the spirit we see in Orlando.  That’s the unity and resolve that will allow us to defeat ISIL.  That’s what will preserve our values and our ideals that define us as Americans.  That’s how we’re going to defend this nation, and that’s how we’re going to defend our way of life. 

I am proud that the Baptist Joint Committee has consistently spoken out against the temptation to scapegoat all of Islam for the crimes of individuals who would pervert its meaning to justify their barbarism. As Brent Walker has said, exploiting such fear and bigotry for political gain is “disgusting demagoguery.”

Millions of Muslim-Americans live, work, serve, worship, and play peacefully in communities across the country. They are full and equal citizens. Their religious freedom guarantees do not come with an asterisk. Their faith is not grounds for criminal suspicion.

We are all Americans, and enjoy the same protections under law. What is that protection worth – what good does it do – if government can subject it to a religious test? 

Kudos to President Obama for defending religious freedom for all in his remarks today. You can watch video of his address here.

For more on the BJC’s work defending and extending religious freedom for everyone, see the BJC’s Religious Liberty for All page, and stand against Islamophobia page.