The One Big Problem With President Obama's Challenge to Muslim Americans


On Sunday, President Barack Obama made a rare address to the American people from the Oval Office on ISIS and mass shootings after last week's deadly attack in San Bernardino. In it, the president outlined his administration's commitment to defeating ISIS abroad, and laid out why he thought a costly ground war like the 2003 invasion of Iraq would do more harm than good.  He ended his 13-minute address with a direct challenge to Muslim Americans: "Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity."

But Muslim Americans have already been doing exactly that, especially in the years since 9/11. And if there's anything we as a country have learned since then, it's that a society doesn't defeat bigotry by placing the responsibility for it on the shoulders of its disenfranchised. ISIS is not Islam, just as the Westboro Baptist Church isn't Christianity. Muslim Americans already know this; it's up to the rest of America to learn it.

If we're not learning it, then we're not paying attention. After the San Bernardino massacre, Muslim communities raised $30,000 in two days for families of the survivors. Muslim leaders far away from Southern California, in places like St. Louis and Dallas, quickly condemned the attacks. Even before law enforcement hinted at an official motive, the Los Angeles branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference in which the perpetrators' brother-in-law, Farhan Khan, professed his love for America. For Muslim leaders, the rationale was simple: "Perception is reality," Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told ABC News. "There was enough information out there at that time that people believed it was [extremism] and that has an impact on Muslim communities. You have to be proactive."

But being proactive doesn't always work. Since 9/11, there has been an average of between 100 and 150 annual hate crimes reported by Muslims in America. In total, anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common than they were before Sept. 11. And as harassment and discrimination have grown, so too have the community's mental health challenges. Mona Amer, a psychologist at Yale University's School of Medicine, conducted what's thought to be the largest ever study on Arab Americans' higher rates of clinical depression than the U.S. average. Muslims in the study had higher rates of depression than Christians, and those rates were especially high for Muslims who did not spend the majority of their time within their ethnic and religious communities. When asked why Christians fared better than Muslims, Amer told USA Today: "They share the mainstream religion. Muslims may have different kinds of names or dress differently and, especially since 9/11, they're ostracized more."

According to a survey from the Arab American Institute, non-Muslim Americans support the use of profiling for law enforcement and aren't even interested in learning about Islam to shatter the stereotypes they might harbor. 

To his credit, President Obama did recognize that the burden shouldn't fall exclusively with America's Muslims. "Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization," Obama said, "it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination." 

Muslims have been holding up their end of that bargain. The rest of us? Not so much.