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Press Releases 2010

Excerpts Regarding Religious Tolerance from President Obama’s September 10 Press Conference

September 13, 2010

Question: Thank you, Mr. President. Nine years after the September 11th attacks, why do you think it is that we are now seeing such an increase in suspicion and outright resentment of Islam, especially given that it has been one of your priorities to increase -- to improve relations with the Muslim world?

The President: I think that at a time when the country is anxious generally and going through a tough time, then fears can surface, suspicions, divisions can surface in a society. And so I think that plays a role in it.

One of the things that I most admired about President Bush was after 9/11, him being crystal-clear about the fact that we were not at war with Islam. We were at war with terrorists and murderers who had perverted Islam, had stolen its banner to carry out their outrageous acts. And I was so proud of the country rallying around that idea, that notion that we are not going to be divided by religion; we're not going to be divided by ethnicity. We are all Americans. We stand together against those who would try to do us harm.

And that's what we've done over the last nine years. And we should take great pride in that. And I think it is absolutely important now for the overwhelming majority of the American people to hang on to that thing that is best in us, a belief in religious tolerance, clarity about who our enemies are -- our enemies are al Questionaeda and their allies who are trying to kill us, but have killed more Muslims than just about anybody on Earth. We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other.

And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation. And as somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise. But I'm also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don't subscribe to the exact same notions that I do, and that they are still good people, and they are my neighbors and they are my friends, and they are fighting alongside us in our battles. And I want to make sure that this country retains that sense of purpose. And I think tomorrow is a wonderful day for us to remind ourselves of that.

Question: Were you concerned at all when you -- when the administration had Secretary of Defense Gates call this pastor in Florida that you were elevating somebody who is clearly from the fringe?

The President: With respect to the individual down in Florida, let me just say -- let me repeat what I said a couple of days ago. The idea that we would burn the sacred texts of someone else's religion is contrary to what this country stands for. It's contrary to what this country -- this nation was founded on. And my hope is, is that this individual prays on it and refrains from doing it.

But I'm also Commander-in-Chief, and we are seeing today riots in Kabul, riots in Afghanistan, that threaten our young men and women in uniform. And so we've got an obligation to send a very clear message that this kind of behavior or threats of action put our young men and women in harm's way. And it's also the best imaginable recruiting tool for al Questionaeda.

And although this may be one individual in Florida, part of my concern is to make sure that we don't start having a whole bunch of folks all across the country think this is the way to get attention. This is a way of endangering our troops -- our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives who are sacrificing for us to keep us safe. And you don't play games with that.

So I hardly think we're the ones who elevated this story. But it is, in the age of the Internet, something that can cause us profound damage around the world, and so we've got to take it seriously.

Question: Thank you, Mr. President. I wonder if I can get you to weigh in on the wisdom of building a mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. We know that the organizers have the constitutional right. What would it say about this country if they were somehow talked out of doing that? And hasn't the Florida minister's threat to burn a couple hundred copies of the Koran, hasn't the threat itself put American lives in danger, sir?

The President: Well, on the second -- on your second question, there's no doubt that when someone goes out of their way to be provocative in ways that we know can inflame the passions of over a billion Muslims around the world, at a time when we've got our troops in a lot of Muslim countries, that's a problem. And it has made life a lot more difficult for our men and women in uniform who already have a very difficult job.

With respect to the mosque in New York, I think I've been pretty clear on my position here, and that is, is that this country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal; that they have certain inalienable rights -- one of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely. And what that means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site.

Now, I recognize the extraordinary sensitivities around 9/11. I've met with families of 9/11 victims in the past. I can only imagine the continuing pain and anguish and sense of loss that they may go through. And tomorrow we as Americans are going to be joining them in prayer and remembrance. But I go back to what I said earlier: We are not at war against Islam. We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam or falsely used the banner of Islam to engage in their destructive acts.

And we've got to be clear about that. We've got to be clear about that because if we're going to deal with the problems that Ed Henry was talking about, if we're going to successfully reduce the terrorist threat, then we need all the allies we can get. The folks who are most interested in a war between the United States or the West and Islam are al Questionaeda. That's what they've been banking on.

And fortunately, the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world are peace-loving, are interested in the same things that you and I are interested in: How do I make sure I can get a good job? How can I make sure that my kids get a decent education? How can I make sure I'm safe? How can I improve my lot in life? And so they have rejected this violent ideology for the most part -- overwhelmingly.

And so from a national security interest, we want to be clear about who the enemy is here. It's a handful, a tiny minority of people who are engaging in horrific acts, and have killed Muslims more than anybody else.

The other reason it's important for us to remember that is because we've got millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbors. They're our friends. They're our coworkers. And when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?

I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we've got to make sure that we are crystal-clear for our sakes and their sakes they are Americans and we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us.And that is a principle that I think is going to be very important for us to sustain. And I think tomorrow is an excellent time for us to reflect on that.