Speaking before the leaders of more than 40 Muslim countries in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia yesterday President Trump moved away from his usual anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric and made a rallying call for the Muslim world to unite against extremism, calling for cooperation rooted in reform, trade and faith. He vowed that he would meet “history’s great test” and conquer extremism with the help of those countries most affected by it – pointing out that 95% of those killed by terrorists are Muslims. He promised not to “lecture” other nations or “to tell people how to live … or how to worship.” His divergence from his normal anti-Muslim language makes this speech remarkable enough. The fact that it was written for the President by Stephen Miller, who was the man behind the President’s failed Muslim ban makes it even more surprising. The speech was welcomed by some of the leaders listening in Riyadh, many of whom were nervously waiting to hear what the President would say. There was a sense of relief that his message was deliberately toned down from what may have been anticipated.
While the speech called for Muslim nations to take the lead in the fight against extremism – to take their responsibilities seriously and meet their fair share of the burden in combating extremism – it was rich on rhetoric and weak on substance. He offered not definitive plans on how a coalition against extremism would work. Martin Chulov, writing for The Guardian, said that ”Trump seemed to convey that his very presence in the room was a watershed moment in a long fraught regional history, leading some in Riyadh to label the address as hubris over substance.” A view supported by Trump himself when he suggested that: “This gathering is unique in the history of nations.” He used lofty phrases that perhaps overplayed the significance of his speech, saying for example: “[this is] the beginning of peace in the Middle East and maybe all over the world.”
The speech was also well received by Muslim leaders because Mr Trump acknowledged that it is Muslim nations who are bearing the greatest burden of extremism. He cited attacks in Europe and the United States, and said: “Terrorism has spread across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land. America is prepared to stand with you – in pursuit of shared interests and common security,” To achieve peace, however, Mr Trump emphasised that Muslim nations must be at the front in the fight against extremism, perhaps expressing his previous comments that the United States shouldn’t be getting involved in foreign entanglements such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but should expect Muslim nations to lead the fight themselves. He said:
“The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this evil for you. Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden if we are going to defeat terrorism, to meet history’s great test and conquer extremism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up safe from fear and free from violence. Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil?”
This will be welcome to many in the United States, in Muslim countries and around the world who are tired of the United States imposing themselves on foreign countries militarily. The President spoke of American foreign policy being flexible and not based on rigid ideology and that the policy towards the region would be one of “principled realism, rooted in common values and shared interests. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.”
Concern ahead of the speech had included how the region’s countries would be able to work with a President who, as one Saudi official said, “may not be terribly consistent as a thinker.” People were anxious about how Trump would approach the problems of the Middle East. The speech largely reassured people. Saad al-Tamimi – a national guard officer – reflected that feeling when he said: “It was reassuring because it was a return to the traditional relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. America is a great friend of Saudi Arabia and the friendship is rooted, regardless of our possible disagreements.” Some, however, were concerned that it could just be more words from an American President. Ahmed Shefai, speaking in Cairo, said: “Speech is always different from action, and I don’t see any kind of action until now. Obama gave a speech about peace before – and so did Bush. Later on it was war.” Others were doubtful of his sincerity. The Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh, who was also watching the speech in Cairo, said: “Unlike Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Trump’s speech will fall on deaf ears. Nobody thinks he means well,”
Trump called for Muslim nations to tackle extremism from within, to stop funding terrorists and to “drive them out” of their own countries and to cut off their sources of funding. However, he didn’t make this conditional on US support. This idea was an echo of a repeated calls along the same line made by President Obama, who in 2009 in Cairo said: “The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.” A lot has changed in the region since Obama’s speech eight years ago. The Arab Spring has altered the whole landscape of the Middle East. Obama’s speech and appeal was aimed at generating more liberal reforms and values in the Middle East. Trump’s was not seemingly concerned with the human rights records of the countries ruled by the absolute leaders he was addressing in Riyadh. He spoke of not dictating how they run their countries, saying: “Our friends will never question our support, and our enemies will never doubt our determination. Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption.”
Photo: President Donald Trump with Saudi King Salman, centre, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
A year ago Donald Trump said of Islam: “I think Islam hates us … There is a tremendous hatred.” Yesterday’s speech was a dramatic, if calculated, departure from that language. The speech, written by Stephen Miller, was said to have gone through several drafts before a final version was agreed upon. His uncompromising views during the 2016 election campaign were replaced with more considered language aimed at garnering the support of Muslim nations in the fight against terror. The oft-used phrase during his campaign, “radical Islamic terrorism” was nowhere to be seen in the speech in Riyadh. But he did keep to the idea that he believes Islamic terrorism is a threat to the US, although he used phrases such as “Islamic terror of all kinds.” While such language still might not be popular with his audience of Muslim leaders, they were pleased that he is offering unconditional support in their fight against terror and overjoyed that he has taken their side in their continuing struggle with Iranian-led Shia Islam, with no Shia leader being invited to the summit. Trump showed disdain towards the Iranian government. The irony was lost on him that only the day before 40 million Iranians had taken part in presidential elections and chose a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani, to lead the country, while Trump was speaking in one of the most oppressive and autocratic countries in the world.
Photo: Houthi fighters marching to the frontline in Yemen
Despite Saudi Arabia’s appalling record on human rights and its continuing intervention in neighbouring Yemen where it’s actions are bringing the country to the brink of famine, Trump was supportive – congratulating them on their “strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen.” No doubt many of the arms being sold to the Saudi government in their $110 billion arms deal will be used by the Saudis in their military action in Yemen, where they have imposed a naval blockade as well as bombing the country – killing some 10,000 civilians by the start of this year. This brings up a major contradiction in the President’s speech – how does he achieve peace in the Middle East or unite Muslim nations in the fight against extremism when he is siding with Sunni Islam and arming the Saudis to continue their slaughter in Yemen?
Trump’s conciliatory language towards Islam was part of his desire to “deliver a message of friendship and hope and love,” and he tried to encompass all religion – including Islam – into his message using language that suggests unity and a common cause between religions. For example, he described the fight against extremism as “a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and … people who want to protect life and their religion” His sudden support for Islam – or Sunni Islam at least – and in particular his allegiance to Saudi Arabia contradicts so much he has said in the past. Just seven months ago he described Saudis as “woman haters [who] push gays […] off buildings.” This weekend he was bowing to their King and accepting a shiny gold medal from him and dancing with swords and the King.
Photo: Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (left) take part in a traditional sword dance
I’ve already said in this post that his speech was written by Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s Muslim ban, but it is incredible to believe that Miller drafted this speech when we consider his attitude to Islam, which was enthusiastically adopted by the campaigning Donald Trump last year. For this reason it is hard to believe in the sincerity of the speech, whether Trump really believes Muslim nations can unify to fight terrorism and extremism. Despite all the anti-Islam posturing over the last year he seems to be falling back on a very familiar theme. As David Shariatmadari, writing in the Independent, suggests that despite being pulled to-and-fro by advisers such as Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon:
“USS Foreign Policy ends up charting a fairly standard course. We saw that in North Korea: Trump’s bluster dissipated to reveal a familiar plan. The US embassy probably won’t move to Jerusalem, as was at first mooted. Campaign talk of repudiating Saudi Arabia has likewise dissolved into arms deals and political cooperation.”
Despite all his talk of changing the way everything is done is Washington, President Trump is perhaps finding that the reality of political office doesn’t allow him to do that. He spoke of making realistic decisions and ones based on US self-interest as well as shared interest, and it seems that his decision to continue the status quo of supporting Saudi Arabia, selling them arms and condemning Iran is set to continue under his administration.
Sources & Further Reading:
- The video on YouTube (35 min)
- Trump vows to meet ‘history’s great test’ by conquering extremism – theguardian.com – 21 May 2017 – by Martin Chulov in Riyadh
- Trump’s tough talk on extremism weakened by backing for autocracies – theguardian.com – 21 May 2017 – by Julian Borger, World Affairs Editor
- Who better to lecture Muslims than Islam expert Donald Trump? – theguardian.com – 21 May 2017 – by David Shariatmadari
- Yemen civil war: 10,000 civilians killed and 40,000 injured in conflict, UN reveals – independent.co.uk – 17 January 2017 – by Ahmed al-Haj
- Donald Trump’s speech on Islam being drafted by ‘Muslim ban’ architect Stephen Miller – independent.co.uk – 18 May 2017 – by Samuel Osborne
- In Saudi Arabia, Trump Reaches Out to Sunni Nations, at Iran’s Expense – nytimes.com – 21 May 2017 – by Ben Hubbard and Thomas Erdbrink
- Donald Trump focuses fire on Iran’s support for ‘terrorists and militias’ – theguardian.com – 22 May 2017 – by Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem and Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Iran correspondent