Trump’s Muslim Speech Was A Change In Tone, But It’s Unlikely To Accomplish Anything
In what was billed as the capstone to his two-day visit to Saudi Arabia, the first stop on a rather ambitious and potentially exhausting nine-day foreign trip that will also take him to Israel, the Vatican, and Sicily, President Trump gave a speech to the leaders of many Muslim-majority nations that deviated sharply from his campaign rhetoric, but which is nonetheless being criticized in some quarters for its mixed messages:
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Trump on Sunday pivoted away from his strident assessment of Islam as a religion of hatred as he sought to redefine American leadership in the Middle East and rally the Muslim world to join him in a renewed campaign against extremism.
Addressing dozens of leaders from across the Muslim world who had gathered in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump rejected the idea that the fight against terrorism was a struggle between religions, and he promised not to scold them about human rights in their countries. But he challenged Muslim leaders to step up their efforts to counter a “wicked ideology” and purge the “foot soldiers of evil” from their societies.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations,” Mr. Trump said in a cavernous hall filled with heads of state eager to find favor with the new president. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion, people that want to protect life and want to protect their religion. This is a battle between good and evil.”
The president’s measured tone here was a far cry from his incendiary language on the campaign trail last year, when he said that “Islam hates us” and called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States.
Throughout his visit, a less volatile president emerged, disciplined and relentlessly on message in a way he is often not at home. He did not brag about his electoral victory and avoided tangents. With few exceptions, he stuck carefully to his teleprompter. His mood has been sober and careful.
By refusing to hold news conferences or answer questions during brief photo opportunities, Mr. Trump orchestrated a sense of diplomatic calm that contrasted sharply with the chaos that usually surrounds him in Washington. He has not used Twitter as a cudgel against adversaries since his overseas trip began.
In his speech on Sunday, he made no mention of the executive orders he signed after taking office barring visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries. Instead, he described Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” and called for “tolerance and respect for each other.”
While in the past Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized President Barack Obama and others for not using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” his staff sought to ensure that he would not use it before this Muslim audience. The final draft of the speech had him instead embracing a subtle but significant switch, using the term “Islamist extremism.” Islamist is often defined to mean someone who advocates Islamic fundamentalism, and some experts prefer its use to avoid tarring the entire religion.
When that moment in the speech came, however, Mr. Trump went off script and used both words, Islamic and Islamist. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds,” he said. An aide said afterward that the president was “just an exhausted guy” and had tripped over the term, rather than rejected the language suggested by his aides.
But if the speech during the second day of a nine-day overseas trip was intended as a sort of reset from his campaign and early presidency, it was also meant to turn away from Mr. Obama’s approach. Rather than preach about human rights or democracy, Mr. Trump said he wanted “partners, not perfection.” And he said it was up to Muslim leaders to expunge extremists from their midst.
“Drive them out,” he said. “Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. And drive them out of this earth.”
Mr. Trump received a warm welcome in the room as Muslim leaders put behind them the messages of the campaign and the attempted travel ban, and he has gotten along well with fellow leaders, who have turned to flattery.
“You are a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible,” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt told him.
“I agree!” Mr. Trump responded cheerily, as laughter rolled through the room.
A few moments later, Mr. Trump returned the compliment, in a fashion. “Love your shoes,” he told Mr. Sisi. “Boy, those shoes. Man!”
But some activists back in the United States gave the president mixed reviews at the start of his trip.
“While President Trump’s address today in Saudi Arabia appears to be an attempt to set a new and more productive tone in relations with the Muslim world, one speech cannot outweigh years of anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals,” Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement.
Mr. Trump made little mention of human rights in any of the meetings, and he promised in his speech not to do so publicly. “We are not here to lecture,” he said. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”
That approach drew bipartisan criticism back in Washington. “It’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy and freedom and human rights,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” On the same program, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, called it “a terrible abdication of our global leadership.”
Michele Dunne, the director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the president had laid blame for terrorism on Muslim leaders who he says have not done enough. “There are elements of truth to Trump’s narrative,” she said, “but it ignores the deeper grievances, the political and economic injustices, that make young people in the region especially susceptible to extremist ideologies at this particular time.”
Notwithstanding the criticism, one of the more significant things about Trump’s speech was the manner in which it different so significantly from his tone on the campaign trail and in press interviews during the Presidential campaign. During that time, of course, Trump’s rhetoric about Islam in general and Muslim immigrants to the United States was among the most vitriolic of any of the candidates for the Republican nomination. He suggested that Islam was, at it’s core, an evil religion that hated the United States, even the nations he was reaching out to in his speech yesterday such as Saudi Arabia could not be trusted, and suggested that Muslim-Americans as a whole were celebrating when terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 based on what later turned out to be disputed, and largely debunked news reports. As a matter of policy, he called for increased surveillance of mosques and communities where Muslim immigrants predominantly settled and, of course, ultimately called for a ban on immigration from all Muslim countries “until we can figure out what the hell is going on.” Additionally, he joined most of his fellow Republican candidates in attacking President Obama and other officials who declined to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” as if doing so would somehow magically transform the War On Terror. Finally, once he was in office, Trump signed an Executive Order imposing a ban on travel and immigration from certain majority-Muslim nations, although it notably excluded nations that actually were the source of terrorism over the past two decades such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. Taken in this context
Taken in this context, Trump’s speech yesterday certainly was a change in tone from a President who had been among the most anti-Muslim candidates in the 2016 Presidential field. Additionally, it was notable for the extent to which it seemed to acknowledge the need for American involvement in the Middle East as part of the fight against terrorism and to extend an olive branch toward Muslim nations that he had been extremely critical of in the past. At the same time, though, the speech was not without its problems. Many critics noted the fact that Trump essentially ignored, and indeed brushed aside, questions of human rights in nations that would be considered allies in this battle. This includes Egypt, where the authoritarian regime of President el-Sisi continues to repress dissent and government critics in the name of internal security, and Pakistan, where blasphemy laws and other government actions continue to repress non-Muslims and people who dissent from the rule of the government. Most prominent on the list, of course, is Saudi Arabia, where people are beheaded, have their hands chopped off, or are whipped in public for breaking the law, where it’s illegal to be gay or lesbian, and where women are forbidden to be in public alone, to drive, and, except in limited instances, to vote or hold political office. For each of these nations and more, Trump’s speech was basically a license to continue these policies without fear as long as they remained allies in the “War On Terror.”
All of that being said, as CNN notes the President’s speech was not without its critics:
Former Jordanian Justice Minister Ibrahim Aljazy said Trump’s shift in tone toward Muslims was notable.
“Trump has moved from ‘Islam hates us’ to a friendlier approach of common values and shared interests,” he said.
But Aljazy said Jordanians and others in the Muslim world had hoped Trump would deliver clearer answers on American policy in the region.
“I would not call it a constructive tone since that people in the region, particularly Jordanians, are looking for a more clear approach to the Israeli policies and an end to settlements, which may pave the way for a true two-state solution and end of occupation,” he said.
“Referencing ‘Islamic’ terrorist organizations only will not be appreciated by the vast majority of people in the region when other forces are carrying out acts of aggression, especially as Arabs and Muslims are the prime victims of these organizations,” he said.
Hamed Mousavi, a political science professor at Iran’s Tehran University, said that Trump’s attempts to strike a friendlier tone in Saudi Arabia were hard to swallow.
“It will be met with deep skepticism in the Muslim world because Trump has been hostile and offensive to Muslims — with his Muslim travel ban, for example. All they’ve seen so far from Donald Trump is a lot of hostility,” he said.
Mousavi said that by making lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the United States has lost its ability to put pressure on Riyadh to reform Wahhabism, a fundamentalist brand of Islam that insists on a strict interpretation of the Koran.
Anne Applebaum, meanwhile, called Trump’s speech and visit “bizarre and Un-American,” while The New Yorker’s Robin Wright notes that Trump’s strategy on fighting terrorism was “simplistic” and unlikely to succeed. Finally, Daniel Larison gave one of the harsher assessments of Trump’s speech:
Trump’s embrace of the Saudis and their agenda is in keeping with his general enthusiasm for our most authoritarian clients and allies, and the speech was a statement of his administration’s Iran obsession and what passes for conventional wisdom in Washington regarding relations with our clients in the region. According to the latter view, Obama was insufficiently supportive of U.S. clients in the region and too open to accommodating Iran, and so Trump has made a point of proving how different he is from Obama by subordinating U.S. policy in the region to the preferences of Riyadh. Where Obama was shamefully supportive of the Saudis, as he was in Yemen, Trump insists on being even more so, and where Obama offered mildly critical (and empty) rhetoric about Saudi behavior Trump will offer nothing but praise. If the Saudis and their allies weren’t the authors of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and if our government wasn’t deepening its complicity in their war crimes in Yemen, the pathetic coddling of the Saudis might not be quite so obnoxious, but they are and it is.
The display the president put on in Riyadh is what happens when the U.S. makes keeping “no daylight” with its clients the top priority. Not only is there no criticism of the client’s behavior, no matter how deserved such criticism might be, but there is excessive fawning and stroking of the client’s ego that creates the false impression that we need them far more than they need us.
On balance, it seems apparent that the critics have a point here. While the change in tone in Trump’s speech is notable, the substance of what he actually said ranges from either being bland and meaningless to being alarmingly unwise. For example, Trump appears to be suggesting a strategy that focuses entirely on military solutions to the terror problem while largely ignoring the human rights abuses and economic problems that have given rise to the conditions that have turned nations into ample breeding grounds for terrorism. Additionally, ignoring the role that Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism have played in that entire process is a massive blind spot that makes it unlikely that any strategy to succeed. Finally, solidifying alliances with authoritarian dictators whose own days are likely numbered, and openly saying that the United States won’t criticize them for human rights abuses, would seem to only guarantee that resentment toward the west in general and the United States in particular will increase as long as those abuses are allowed to continue. In other words, the speech was far less than meets the eye and unlikely to accomplish anything.