In Riyadh Speech, Shift in Trump’s Tone on Islam

June 6, 2017
Trump sits with King Hamed bin Issa

May 21, during his first trip abroad as US president, Donald Trump spoke to Saudi Arabian leaders about their shared burden of rooting out “Islamic extremism.” Many watching anxiously awaited to see what terminology the president would use to refer to religiously-motivated terrorism. Trump had previously criticized President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” but declined to use the term himself during this highly-scrutinized speech.

Trump—who has publicly said that “Islam hates us” and in 2015 declared, “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims”—has been condemned for his anti-Muslim rhetoric across both political parties.

In his late May speech, however, Trump’s tone was notably softer on the topic of Islam. Calling Islam “one of the world’s great faiths,” Trump stressed to his audience the importance of an interfaith, united front against terrorism.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between Good and Evil.”

Despite prior statements that Christians face “more” persecution than Muslims, in Riyadh, Trump acknowledged that “in sheer numbers, the deadliest toll [of terrorism] has been exacted on the innocent people of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern nations. They have borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence.”

Emphasizing the high proportion of Muslim young adults affected by the violence, Trump lamented the “untapped potential” of young people who “seek great futures to build, great national projects to join, and a place for their families to call home.”

In the days following the speech, many critics highlighted what they saw as a discrepancy between Trump’s rhetoric and his policies.

“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—including an attempt to enact a Muslim ban by executive order, which his administration continues to defend in court,” said the Council on American-Islamic Relations in a statement.

Others worried that Trump’s speech overemphasized a top-down approach to addressing terrorism, when radicalization is most often driven by authoritarianism. In a thread on Twitter, American Arab Muslim Hend Amry wrote,

“Trump has said NOTHING about the drivers of terrorism. Just talking about it like it’s an unfortunate career path some choose. And that’s what those in the audience want to hear. That they are not in any way complicit in the social decay & rise of violence.”

For Ali Rizvi, Pakistani-Canadian author of The Athiest Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason, the biggest flaw in Trump’s speech was his attempt to dismiss Islamic extremism as a “false” religion. 

“Saying that terrorists ‘don’t worship God, they worship death,’ is the same kind of deadly, self-deluding rhetoric that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even George W. Bush peddled for years,” Rizvi wrote. “Of course terrorists worship God—in fact, they do so with stronger faith and more piety than most other religious people. They don’t look at death as an end to be mourned like we do; they look at it as a transition to a better place, which is exactly what religion teaches.”

Overall, Rizvi said, he was happy with Trump’s speech.

“A growing number of Muslims today do want Western leaders to speak honestly about the extreme Islamic fundamentalist ideology that Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of, while not holding all of them responsible,” Rizvi said. “This speech—for all its flaws and oversights and the speaker’s questionable credibility—got closer to striking the right balance than many of us would like to admit.”

Trump’s first trip abroad brought him to a number of holy sites of the Abrahamic faiths, from birthplace of Islam Saudi Arabia to the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Vatican City.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Trump meets with King Hamed bin Issa. Photo by The White House, Flickr Creative Commons.