It was predictable that President Barack Obama would get slammed for speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore this week. The president's critics have taken the position that whatever Mr. Obama does must be wrong, including things Republicans themselves have done. President George W. Bush visited an American mosque in Washington just six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, and said essentially the same thing Mr. Obama told his Muslim audience in Baltimore: that we must not let the terrorists win by turning us against each other; that violent extremists have distorted the teachings of Islam for their own purposes; and that, most importantly, as Americans we are all in this together.
In 2001, no one criticized Mr. Bush for saying that, which seemed at the time an altogether fitting statement of our shared determination to defeat al-Qaeda and a reaffirmation of the values of religious tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness that are at the core of our national identity. Yet a decade and a half later, Americans seem less ready to embrace those universal principles. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 56 percent of Americans today think "the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life," and the numbers are even higher among Republicans and tea party supporters. More than three-quarters of them believe Islam is incompatible with American democracy.
Clearly the mood of the country has shifted in the wake of two inconclusive foreign wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels last year and, closer to home, the Boston Marathon bombing and the murderous rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., by deluded fanatics. Americans are more likely to fear their fellow Muslim citizens than they were 15 years ago, yet that's precisely why the president should be applauded for continuing to remind us that our enemy is not Islam, one of the world's great religious traditions, but a criminal cult of violent extremists who justify their atrocities in its name.
The GOP hopefuls vying for Mr. Obama's job this year refuse to make that crucial distinction, however. Instead, they have done everything possible to stoke our fears of Islam and, by extension, of each other as well. Donald Trump's bellicose threats to bar Muslims from entering the country and to establish a national database to track those already here would be laughable were it not for the scary fact that so many Americans actually seem inclined to support such a scheme. Not only is Mr. Trump's hateful rhetoric "inexcusable," as the president put it, but the ideas behind his proposals are contrary to everything this country stands for.
Similarly Sen. Marco Rubio recently referred to Mr. Obama's call for solidarity with an American Muslim community that understandably feels threatened and besieged as a cynical attempt to divide Americans. The twisted logic of that charge seems to stem from Mr. Rubio's suspicion that the president hopes to benefit politically from making Americans feel guilty about hating Muslims — as if hating people because of their religion were OK.
Mr. Obama's visit to Baltimore marked the first time he has set foot in an American mosque during his seven years in office, and he used the opportunity to defend his belief in the basic principles that have guided his conduct of the war on terror at home and abroad: "We can't be bystanders to bigotry," he said. "Together, we've got to show that America truly protects all faiths. As we protect our country from terrorism, we should not reinforce the ideas and the rhetoric of the terrorists themselves."
It may be unrealistic to expect any of this year's Republican presidential contenders to acknowledge the wisdom of the president's words. But his insistence that Muslims, Christians, Jews and others are all part of "one American family" and that our fates are inextricably tied to one another through our common humanity is a statement of the basic values of this country and the quality of leadership needed to steer it through troubled times no matter who ends up winning the White House this year.