WASHINGTON, (AFP) – An impassioned President Barack Obama Friday warned Americans must not turn on one another over religion, after rows over Islam sparked global fury, nine years after the September 11 attacks.
Obama also mounted a strident defense of American Muslims, paid tribute to believers fighting in the US armed forces, and said US citizens must remember who their true enemies were — naming Al-Qaeda and “terrorists.”
The president has vowed a “new beginning” with Islam, but international tensions have spiked over a plan for a Muslim cultural center near the felled World Trade Center site in New York and a US pastor’s threat to burn Korans.
“We have to make sure that we don’t start turning on each other,” Obama said at a White House news conference on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“We are one nation under God and we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation,” he said, adding that Americans must remain clear about the identity of their true foes.
“Our enemies are Al-Qaeda and their allies who are trying to kill us.”
The president condemned a threat by Florida pastor Terry Jones to burn Korans on Saturday — which is now on hold — as “un-American” and warned people should not “play games” with the security of US troops abroad.
Obama also reaffirmed the constitutional right of American Muslims to build a cultural center that includes a mosque near the “Ground Zero” site in New York, which has opened deep political divides.
“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 a site.”
Obama also pointedly referred to “my Christian faith” in an apparent swipe at conservatives who consistently claim he is a closet Muslim, as he made his defense of Islam.
“We have 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 co-workers.”
“When we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?”
He also praised the bravery of US Muslim soldiers in Afghanistan.
“We don’t differentiate between them and us. It’s just us.”
Obama had rare warm praise for former president George W. Bush, whom he regularly assails over the economy, for his efforts to ensure the 2001 attacks did not whip up a backlash against Islam.
The news conference was an ostensible attempt to press home the case for Obama’s economic recovery plans, as his Democrats face a Republican wave that may challenge their congressional majorities in November’s election.
“The hole the recession left was huge and progress has been painfully slow,” Obama said, capping a week in which he has launched an energetic campaign ahead of the congressional polls on November 2.
Obama also accused Republicans of blocking the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, over his insistence that America cannot afford to retain separate reductions for those earning over 250,000 dollars.
“What I’ve got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they’re insisting we’ve got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires.” he said.
Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell however accused the president of insisting on raising taxes on hundreds of thousands of businesses and families.
“Americans want to know that Washington is going to stop the reckless spending and debt, the burdensome red-tape and job-killing taxes,” he said.
Obama has been undermined politically by a slower-than-expected recovery, 9.6 percent unemployment and a belief among many Americans that the economy is still in crisis.
On the Middle East, the president said it made sense for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend a moratorium on settlement building which expires this month.
But he conceded that the step was politically difficult for Netanyahu, and urged Palestinians to demonstrate to Israelis that they were serious about peace moves.
Palestinians have threatened to walk out of peace talks if the moratorium is not extended.
Obama also said his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay camp for terror suspects was “not for lack of trying” but said the politics were hugely difficult.