One day before the nation was to observe the ninth anniversary of the infamous 9/11 terror attacks, President Obama stressed to the American people that they 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," Obama said during a press conference Friday morning.
"And we've got to be clear about that," the president continued. "We've got to be clear about that because … if we're going to successfully reduce the terrorist threat, then we need all the allies we can get."
While past observances of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been somber and marked by sentiments of unity, Saturday's has been taking up a more contentious tone as a result of the planned burning of Qurans in Florida and the proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks away from the site in New York where the World Trade Center once stood. The media, notably, has played a major role in fanning the flames of both controversies, which were relatively unknown until the news lull of summer catapulted them to the fore.
Though the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville has called of its 9/11 burning (without ruling out future burnings), some said Friday that the damage had already been done. The plans alone incited protests in various parts the world – some violent – and likely fueled anti-Christian and anti-American sentiments.
Meanwhile, the row over the Islamic center near Ground Zero is still going strong despite efforts by the group behind it, Park51, to make the facility a symbol of interfaith peacemaking and reconciliation.
"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," Obama said Friday when asked about the reason behind the increase in suspicion and outright resentment of Islam.
And amid the tense atmosphere, the president said he thinks 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."
"We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other," Obama added.
The president said one of the thing he "most admired" about his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, was how he was "crystal clear about the fact that we were not at war with Islam" after the 9/11 attacks.
"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," Obama stated. "We stand together against those who would try to do us harm."
That said, the president expressed his intention to do everything he can as president to remind the American people that "we are one nation under God."
"We may call that God different names but we remain one nation," Obama stated before describing himself as "somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job."
Obama's latter remark was likely a reaction to the 20 or so percent of Americans who said in recent polls that they believes he is a Muslim.
When asked if he could weigh in on the wisdom of building a mosque near Ground Zero, Obama said he made his position "pretty clear."
"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," the president stated. "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."
Obama stressed that the country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal; that they have certain inalienable rights.
And one of those inalienable rights is to practice their religion freely, the president noted.
"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," Obama stated, while keeping an earlier vow he made to "not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there."
The president further argued that the "overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world are peace-loving" and interested in the same things that any other American is.
"They have rejected this violent ideology for the most part – overwhelmingly," Obama asserted.
That said, the president reminded the press that there are millions of Muslim Americans in the country.
"They're going to school with our kids. They're our neighbors. They're our friends. They're our coworkers," Obama stated.
"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," he added.
"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," the president continued.
"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," he concluded.
Obama was expected to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks at the Pentagon while Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to visit New York for Saturday's anniversary. First Lady Michelle Obama, meanwhile, will join former first lady Laura Bush in Pennsylvania for ceremonies marking the crash of United Flight 93.
The terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2010, left nearly 3,000 dead and over 6,000 injured.