President Donald Trump set aside a defiant catchphrase of his political campaign in his first major address to the Muslim world, refraining from using “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the threat.
During the campaign, Trump said repeatedly that any politician who wouldn’t use those words was too weak or obsessed with political correctness to be president. In the run-up to the speech in Riyadh on Sunday, Trump’s advisers had suggested he would substitute the more muted “Islamist extremism.”
Trump — never known for sticking to the script in prepared speeches — went instead with describing the need to confront “the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.” The deviation from the script was inadvertent near the end of a long day, according to a White House official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
But the point was made: Trump’s previously favored three-word phrase was gone.
It’s quite possible that the subtlety was lost on the Arab leaders from more than 50 nations who had been invited to attend. Trump’s team might hope it’s lost on his supporters back home as well.
For Trump, like any president traveling abroad, such a speech must balance foreign imperatives including closing business deals and enlisting Arab leaders to do more in the fight against terror with the need to avoid angering the domestic political base. Many of Trump’s voters backed him because of his black-and-white stance on the evils of terrorism generally and Muslim terrorism specifically.
Actions Speak Louder
In the region, Mohamed Kamal, professor of political science at Cairo University, said he didn’t think Trump’s change in language was very significant.
“He’s simply trying to show that he realizes that the fight is not against Islam as a religion, but against those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam,” Kamal said.
When asked whether average Muslims would notice the distinction, he said, “As Americans say: Actions speak louder than words.”
Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, political science professor at the American University in Cairo and Cairo University, also said, “I am sure that the Arabic translation of Trump’s speech did not make the nuanced distinction between ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islamist.”’
Trump did offer a new phrase to describe the stakes.
“This is a battle between good and evil,” Trump 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.”
Trump also repeatedly acknowledged the efforts and achievements of Muslim countries in battling extremism. He singled out Shiite-ruled Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, for sponsoring terrorism financially and militarily from Syria to Yemen.
In the speech, he described Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” — a far cry from a phrase he once used during the campaign when he said, “I think Islam hates us.”
In this case, the shift reflects the counsel of a number of his foreign policy advisers such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who has sought an outreach to Arab leaders to do more to stop terrorism.
Trump also used the trip to sign more than $100 billion in business deals in the region, an indication that he also wants their help on his domestic jobs efforts. Being seen as insulting their religion wouldn’t help either cause.
Throughout last year’s presidential campaign and in his first months in office, Trump defiantly stuck with “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the central security challenge for the U.S.
The phrase became a rallying cry for many Trump supporters, along with his pledge to keep open the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba for terror detainees and his travel ban on people from various Muslim-majority countries, a list that does not include Saudi Arabia. Trump’s travel ban has fueled concern among many Muslims that the U.S. president was targeting their faith. The order is currently stalled in the courts.
“Islamist extremism” was meant to represent a measured rather than wholesale shift. It aims to show more sensitivity to Muslim leaders by focusing on the ideological movement of Islamism rather than on the religion of Islam itself, according to people familiar with the speech preparations.
The White House official who briefed reporters pushed back against the idea that Trump had weakened his rhetoric on extremism, saying the opposite was true: he showed strength in confronting Muslim leaders face to face about the imperative to act more aggressively in the region.
At the same time, the shift maintains the principle that the U.S. and other nations are not just fighting any kind of extremism devoid of a theological tie.
The shift also suggests at least a temporary victory for those in Trump’s administration who’ve advocated toning down his campaign rhetoric such as McMaster, amid reports that Trump is less than fully pleased with the former general.
In an interview with ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday before Trump spoke, McMaster said of the extremist threat that “of course, the president will call it whatever he wants to call it.”
‘Not Religious People’
It’s important to say that terrorists “are not religious people and in fact, these enemies of all civilization, what they want to do is to cloak their criminal behavior under some false idea of a religious war,” McMaster said.
Even as he adjusted his rhetoric in Riyadh, Trump made clear his address would not be a repeat of his predecessor Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009.
While Obama and Trump both were making the point that the U.S. and the Muslim world share a common goal of fighting terrorism, Obama also sought to show an affinity for Muslim culture. He greeted the crowd with an “Assalaamu alaykum” and said, “Let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” Obama compared the plight of the Palestinians on one level with those of U.S. blacks seeking equality after slavery and segregation.
Trump also set himself apart from Obama’s tendency to call out other world leaders on human rights, saying, “We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be.” Still, he did make a pitch for women’s equality in male-ruled Muslim nations, a theme that may reflect the influence of his daughter, Ivanka.
Al-Sayyid said one speech can’t erase Trump’s well-known promise to move the U.S embassy to Jerusalem, now shelved, or that Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu was one the very first heads of states he met.
“So only actions, rather than a change of words will fix the U.S.’s image in this part of the world,” Al-Sayyid said.
Hamad Al Rowaitea, 37, a telecom engineer, said he was pleased with Trump’s speech and that the U.S. president knows that Muslims are allies in the flight against terror — not people he should blame.
“I wasn’t expecting his speech, which showed that he saw Saudi as an ally in the fight against terror, not just blaming us and our societies,” he said.