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In Speech on Islam, Trump Strikes a More Moderate Tone

6 minute read

President Donald Trump delivered a plea for Muslims around the world to rid their communities of the “evil” of terrorism, in a landmark address in Saudi Arabia on Sunday that marked a stark departure from past, confrontational rhetoric about the Muslim world.

Instead of collectively blaming Muslims for the rise of extremist groups like ISIS, he presented terrorism as the subject of a bipolar conflict within Islam. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people,” said Trump, speaking to a summit of Arab and Muslim heads of state in Saudi Arabia’s capital. “Drive them out. 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 the earth,” he continued.

He employed rhetorical devices reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration, setting up a dichotomy between good and evil in the Muslim world.

Standing in a vast, glittering conference hall, the American president appeared to throw his weight behind Saudi Arabia in the regional feud with Iran, castigating the Shi’ite-majority country for having “fueled fires of sectarian conflict” throughout the Middle East. “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room,” he said of Iran.

His tone on his Sunni hosts painted an entirely different picture. Reading remarks from a teleprompter, Trump invoked the rich cultural history of the Middle East, and also painted a picture of an aspirational and peaceful future. “The birthplace of civilizations is ready to begin a new renaissance,” he said.

Unmentioned was the kind of rhetoric that alienated much of the Muslim-American community and Muslims around the world. Barely a year ago, in March 2016, Trump told CNN: “I think Islam hates us. There’s something there that — there’s a tremendous hatred there.”

Instead, the address included an acknowledgement that Muslims make up the vast majority of those killed by extremist groups. The speech was replete with references to “shared interests” and called for a common struggle against what he termed the “ideology of extremism.”

The shift in tone did not strike everyone as entirely genuine. “The credibility gap is something that’s very hard for him to overcome, because you can’t go from saying ‘I think Islam hates us’ to saying ‘Oh, what a wonderful religion.’ But he’s done exactly that,” says HA Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

The president did not specifically disavow his past remarks on Muslims, instead turning to a call for action that places a collective burden on Muslims to root out the threat of extremism — rather than treating jihadist groups as a sociological phenomenon rooted in failed states and political dysfunction, as President Barack Obama sought to do.

Only once did a hint of the old Trump creep in, when he added an unscripted mention of “Islamic terror” — an addition not lost on Breitbart.com, the right-wing news site formerly run by his chief adviser Stephen K. Bannon.

In general, Trump’s rhetoric mirrored the statements of aides who urged him to set aside his more aggressive statements about Muslims. In an interview with ABC News’ “This Week” aired on Sunday, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster suggested the president might not use the signature “Islamic terror” phrase. “Whatever we call it, we recognize that these are not religious people and in fact, these enemies of all civilization,” he said.

Reaction to the speech from the Middle East and the broader Muslim world was mixed, with some applauding Trump for dialing down his vitriol towards Muslims and others remaining deeply skeptical.

“A lot of it is stuff we’ve already heard before from Bush: with us or against us. It’s Axis of Evil, good versus evil,” says Iyad Baghdadi, a writer and fellow with the Norwegian think tank Civita. “It looks like we’re going back to another cycle, a terrorists versus tyrants vicious cycle,” he tells TIME.

Trump’s speech was his answer to former President Barack Obama’s iconic speech in Cairo in 2009, when he stressed that America and Islam are not mutually exclusive, and called for new era of open relations between the two. Obama’s speech attempted to end the mutual fear and distrust that existed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. “This cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” he said.

The decision to deliver the speech in Saudi Arabia set up a delicate task for Trump, a notoriously indelicate public speaker. The president came to deliver a speech on Islam in the country that is home to the religion’s holiest site, Mecca. Rather than repeat prior expressions of hostility toward Muslims, he gave a disciplined and conservative speech. “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” he said. By avoiding bombast, he nixed any chance of diplomatic trouble.

“The bar was so low that it would have been quite a feat to not clear it. All Trump really had to do was avoid saying something offensive about Islam, and he did that,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the book Islamic Exceptionalism.

The choice of venue also signaled Trump’s approach to relations with the Middle East, choosing to deliver the address at a summit of heads of state and other dignitaries hosted by the Saudi government, a conservative and controversial force in the Middle East.

Obama’s speech took place at Cairo University, symbol of secular learning and enlightenment in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country and where a popular uprising would take place less than two years later, ending the three-decade dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak.

Trump now confronts a region deeply in chaos as a result of forces unleashed both by the Iraq invasion and the 2011 revolts. The Arab world is now a realm consumed by civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, by the scourge of ISIS, and beset by authoritarian regimes reasserting themselves in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

During his visit to Riyadh, Trump has put forward a series of policies that deepen America’s relationship with those autocratic regimes. He sealed a nearly $110 billion weapons sale to the government of Saudi Arabia and held a friendly meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military chief who took power in a coup in 2013.


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