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Obama slams 'inexcusable' anti-Muslim rhetoric by Republicans

Obama gives impassioned speech about importance of Muslim Americans in first US mosque visit
Invoking the Prophet Mohammed and hailing the tolerance shown by American political icons, Obama hit out at anti-Muslim sentiment that is 'not who we are' (AFP)

Barack Obama on Wednesday offered an impassioned rebuttal of "inexcusable" Republican election-year rhetoric against Muslims as he made his first trip to an American mosque seven years into his presidency.

Obama, whose grandfather converted to Islam, made the short trip to the Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB) mosque, where he met community leaders and called on Americans not to be "bystanders to bigotry".

The US president hit out at anti-Islamic sentiment that is "not who we are".  

"We've heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans that has no place in our country," he said, lauding Muslim-Americans who were sports heroes, entrepreneurs and the architect behind the skyscrapers of Chicago.  

“Islam has always been a part of America. You fit in here, right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You aren’t Muslim or American. You are Muslim and American,” he added.

"You know back then Muslims were often called Mohammedans, and Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia statute for religious freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths ... 'the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan'," Obama said to applause. 

His comments comes as a shrill election debate has sullied America's image abroad, and attacks in San Bernardino and Philadelphia threatened to shatter post-9/11 religious solidarity at home.

In the current presidential election, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has wooed conservative voters by demanding a ban on Muslim immigrants, while frontrunner Ted Cruz has advocated Christian-only admissions and championed "Judeo-Christian values".

On Wednesday, Obama said: "An attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths."

He also criticised the media, which he said portrays Muslims in a narrow way.

"Our television shows should have Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security," he said.

Obama had visited mosques in Malaysia, Indonesia and Egypt as president, but this was his first visit to one of America's 2,000-plus places of Islamic worship.

In 2009, a freshly elected Obama traveled to Cairo to call for a "new beginning" with the Muslim world.

Much of Obama's foreign policy agenda has focused on improving ties with Muslim nations, from making a nuclear deal with Iran to ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the effort has been stymied by continued confrontation with groups and military strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

Obama restated his case that organisations like the Islamic State (IS) group pervert Islam and do not represent the vast majority of Muslims. 

The president said, "two words that Muslim Americans don't hear often enough, and that is thank you," saying they help unite the country in "one American family."

In a New York Times report, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin thought Obama’s speech could be compared to two past presidents nearing the end of their term.

“George Washington warned his countrymen against the increasing power of factions which kindle animosity of one against the other while Eisenhower warned against the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex,” she wrote in an email.

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