Trump Speech to Muslims in Saudi Arabia Misses the Mark

May 27

A version of this editorial appeared in the Florida Times Union, May 27, 2017

President Trump’s uncharacteristically monotonic speech to a gathering of Muslim leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, went off without any gaffes, to the great satisfaction of his advisers. Trump’s speech was similar to that of President Obama in Cairo, eight years ago. Both Trump and Obama, acknowledged the obvious commonality of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and rhetorically extended an olive branch to Muslims by paying respects to their faith of Islam. Trump also acknowledged that Muslims are the primary victims of terrorism, a point made by Obama too, which however, Trump and his supporters till date had taken great pains in avoiding.

But can one speech erase the litany of anti-Muslim statements? In 2011, Trump not only peddled birtherism but also insinuated that Obama was born Muslim. He then went on to spuriously assert that, “if you’re a Muslim, you don’t change your religion, by the way.” Trump also famously said, “I think Islam hates us.” The pinnacle of Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiments shone through in 2015, when he said, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” This statement is at the core of several court challenges on Trump’s travel ban of people from several Muslim majority countries.

Although commentators noted the similarities between Trump’s and Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, Trump’s speech has generally been panned by Muslim activists. While Obama spoke to students at the historic Al Azhar University in Cairo, Trump addressed mostly kings and despots in Riyadh. Terrorism in the name of Islam emanates from disaffected youth. Stoking the egos of the very leaders that have robbed these young people of their dreams cannot be seriously taken as a new path forward. If Trump wanted to make amends on his harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies, then why not outreach to Muslims at home first? Trump appeared comfortable with the notion that Islam is a foreign religion with a glorious past. He seems uncomfortable accepting the reality that Islam is American, with a future intertwined with that of America.

Both Trump and his host, King Salman incorrectly alluded that Saudi Arabia is the heart of Islam. The geographical locations of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah does not make Saudi Arabia Islam’s Vatican. To the contrary, Saudi Arabia exports a puritanical, Wahhabi, version of Islam, which forms the core teachings of many radical Muslim groups. While all Wahhabis are not terrorists, most Muslim terrorists have found ideological comity with them. The Saudi government may not be directly financing terrorist groups, but it is hard to imagine that an absolute monarchy, which tightly regulates all aspect of social life, is unaware of the money spigots sustaining Wahhabism at home and abroad. Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam is unrepresentative of the broader Muslim world and the export of this brand has been destabilizing many moderate nations.

Trump’s bellicose rhetoric towards Iran perhaps heralds a new era of Middle East conflict. While lecturing Muslims about unity, Trump and his Saudi hosts ignored the reality that Shias are as much part of Islam as Sunnis. Not having Iran, the largest Shia country, at the table where American relationship with the Muslim world is being discussed, is an omission with ominous foreboding. Peace in the Middle East will require a grand détente, not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but also between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In both cases, the U.S. will have to be perceived as an honest broker. Trump’s bear hug of the Saudis sent the wrong signal of America cheerleading for Sunni Arabs against Shia Persians. In addition, Trump’s willful disregard for Saudi Arabia’s complicity in the Yemeni humanitarian disaster undermined any perceived olive branch to Muslims.

Trump’s Saudi visit was much hypocritical ado about nothing. Many commentators failed to note that the four important words missing from Trump’s speech were – democracy, freedom and human rights. Securing a deal to sell more arms to a region already awash in arms is not a new turn for diplomacy. The arms deal may secure a few American jobs but those jobs will be built on the graves of more innocent souls, which in turn will fuel more radicalism, continuing a vicious cycle of reprisals and death in the Middle East.