In remarks made during a reception celebrating the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr in the White House this afternoon, President Obama reaffirmed his steadfast support and respect for the Muslim community in the United States. He called for tolerance of Muslim Americans, while also recognizing the communities' achievements and contributions to society.
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"I especially want to speak to the young people who are here, to make sure that you know that we see you, that we believe in you," Obama said to a crowd of a couple hundred Muslim American officials, guests, and community members.
"And despite what you may sometime hear, you’ve got to know that you’re a valued part of the American family, and there’s nothing that you cannot do," he said.
Obama defended the patriotic role more than 5,000 Muslim Americans have played in serving the U.S. military, while also commending the many doctors, architects, community leaders, and police officers that identify as Muslim, including one athlete heading to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil.
"You are the athletes that we cheer for, like American fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is going to be proudly wearing her hijab when she represents America at the Rio Olympics," Obama said. "No pressure."
Eid al-Fitr means “festival of breaking the fast." It's a day of observance, but also an occasion for Muslims to show their gratitude to God and give alms to the poor. The holiday marks the end of Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar in which Muslims adhere to a strict fast observed from sunrise to sunset. This year, a majority of the Muslim world celebrated Eid on July 6.
"This year, for my last year as President, I wanted to do something a little bit different, and I’m very proud to host this Eid celebration at the White House," Obama said.
Colorful headscarves littered the crowd, as 12-year-old Raahima Siddiqi of Virginia led off the remarks with an eloquent recitation of the Arabic prayer, Surah Fatiha, the first chapter in Islam’s holy book, the Quran.
Introducing Obama was Aisha Osman, 15, of Beaverton, Oregon, who was selected after Obama read a letter she sent him about her experiences as a young Muslim American.
“As an African-American Muslim, I’ve been called a terrorist and the N-word. What those people don’t know is that I am proud to be an American," Osman said. "I know I am the future of this country that I love."
Obama called her letter "heartbreaking."
"Now that’s a young American, full of promise, full of possibility, fearful because of her faith," he said during his remarks.
The White House reception comes at a fraught time for Muslim-Americans, as threats and harassment aimed at the country’s nearly 3 million population continue to surge. Recent anti-Islamic rhetoric spewed by several high-profile Republican politicians has only stoked the issue further in their efforts to conflate horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith.
This summer alone saw some of the deadliest attacks both on U.S. soil and abroad by so-called Islam devotees. A U.S. citizen born to Afghani immigrants committed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Several hundred were left dead after terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, Iraq, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. And last week, 84 people were killed and more than 300 were injured when a cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France.
Terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility for a majority of the attacks –- but Obama has been quick to denounce their actions, saying the terror group is not representative of the majority of the Muslim world.
"Singling out Muslim Americans, moreover, feeds the lie of terrorists like ISIL that the West is somehow at war with a religion that includes over a billion adherents. That’s not smart national security," Obama said.
Chants of "four more years" rang out as Obama spoke about the "challenging times" the country is currently facing.
“No, no, no, Michelle is gonna come down and scold me,” he laughed.
Obama also acknowledged “the greatest, the champ, Muhammad Ali," saying the boxing legend was "as proud of his blackness as he was of his faith."
“The champ taught us the most important thing in life is to be ourselves,” he said. Ali’s wife Lonnie, and six of their children were also in attendance.
Obama urged the crowd to reject hatred and discrimination, reiterating the need for Muslim Americans and "all Americans" to stand together and "look out for one another."
"So today, we celebrate this wonderful holiday and honor a great faith, but we also recommit ourselves to building an America where everybody has the opportunity to achieve their dreams," Obama said. "And we reaffirm the values of democracy, and freedom of religion, and tolerance, and community building, and understanding, and hard work that allows all of us -- whatever our faiths -- to prosper."