President Trump is making his first trip abroad with scheduled visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. Each of these locations have important diplomatic implications for America’s standing in the world, as well as political relevance for Trump’s waning popularity in America. Whether intentionally or not, this trip has huge interfaith significance as Trump makes a pilgrimage (of sorts) to the centers of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim faiths.
Trump’s international sojourn is making many nervous as it is one thing to provoke a nation state — say Mexico, with derogatory comments and threats — it is quite another to provoke a religion.
There are many ways Trump’s trip could go wrong: Pope Francis and Trump have exchanged barbs via Twitter; and while Trump enjoys a love fest with Netanyahu and Israel’s right, he has also (rightfully) criticized settlements in Palestine and (thankfully) refrained from moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.
But nothing reaches the level of potential disaster of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he is scheduled to give a speech about Islam to the Muslim world. This would be fraught for any politician or religious leader. Pope Benedict attempted an address to the Muslim world in 2006 at the University of Regensburg in Germany, and... let’s just say... it was not well received. If the address of such a skilled theologian as Benedict resulted in riots and serious breaches between the Muslim and Catholic world, what might such an address by Trump produce?
The idea of a Trump speech to the Muslim world is made even worse by the consistent anti-Muslim message put forth by the Trump campaign during the 2016 campaign and the introduction of a ban on immigrants from Muslim countries in the first weeks of his presidency. One of the effects of the rise of Trump has been the enormous increase of anti-Muslim hate groups, as well as five Mosques being burned in America by arson. Trump’s reaction: silence.
If the address of such a skilled theologian... resulted in riots and serious breaches between the Muslim and Catholic world, what might such an address by Trump produce?
Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University feels that Trump’s negative rhetoric about Islam, up to this point, does not give him the credibility to speak to the Muslim world:
“President Trump is uniquely unqualified in speaking to Muslims about Muslim affairs given the record of his discriminating rhetoric and policy proposals against Muslims.”
It is a sentiment that Dr. Debbie Almontaser, Board President of the Muslim Community Network, echos. Her recommendation is that Trump’s Muslim outreach should begin at home:
“President Trump needs to exercise diplomacy at home first, with the diverse Muslim communities he has endangered with his campaign policies and rhetoric, as well as disregarding them as citizens of the United States. When he recognizes and respects their right to live with dignity and respect in the U.S., free of hate and fear, Muslim world leaders will give him the benefit of the doubt.”
The most worrisome piece of all is that Trump’s speech is being written, not by Muslim Americans who might help bridge and articulate the possibilities mutual benefits and thriving of Islam and America, but instead by Stephen Miller, the architect of the Muslim ban executive order. Linda Sarsour, a progressive Palestinian activist finds that inexcusable:
“My first concern is that Stephen Miller, a known Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist is writing his speech which raises many flags. Trump has said things like ‘Islam hates us’ during the campaign and we can not afford a speech that vilifies Islam in this tense political climate globally. He’s a national security threat.”
The framing of the address may be at the root of the problem. Trump’s team has said this is a forthright speech about radical ideology in Islam and, according to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, will be “inspiring yet direct.” Yet, this basic approach is the problem according to Imam Sultan:
“My concern is that President Trump’s obsessive singular focus of seeing Muslims as a security threat will be highlighted in such an address to the Muslim World resulting in dividing walls rather than bridges.”
All of these worries are combined with the irony of going to Saudi Arabia for a speech on Islam, given that Saudi Arabia has been exporting Wahhabism, a fundamentalist form of Islam, and that the majority of Muslims do not live in the Middle East, as Imam Sultan explains:
“Making such a speech in Saudi Arabia is exactly the wrong stage as the kingdom’s vision of Islam and influence in the Muslim World needs to be contained rather than exaggerated.”
The most complete response came from Wajahat Ali, attorney-turned-playwright and lead author of the investigative report “Fear Inc: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” He had some seriously funny, yet extremely serious advice for the President:
“President Trump, allow me to give you sincere advice. I know how hard you work while golfing at Mar-a-Lago or obsessively watching cable news shows when you should be, you know, reading. Being President is hard. It carries burdens and responsibilities, such as being informed, not tweeting reckless lies, having a functional White House staff, not colluding with foreign enemies and so forth.
“It can take a toll on even the biggest, greatest and smartest of leaders, such as yourself. That’s why you can tap out of this upcoming speech on Islam you plan on giving in Saudi Arabia. You don’t have to do it. Seriously. Please. Don’t. On behalf of 1.7 billion people, apparently part of the ‘Islam’ that you think ‘hates us,’ I’m giving you an out.
“You’ve enlightened us enough with your Obama birther conspiracy, lies about New Jersey Muslims celebrating the 9-11 attacks, Muslim bans, plans to do extreme vetting of Muslims, mulling a Muslim registry, and surrounding yourself by reactionary extremists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who yearn for an apocalyptic confrontation with Islam. Also, in a testament to your enduring genius, you’ve tapped Mr. Miller to write this Islam speech for you. The same Mr. Miller who co-authored the Muslim Ban — even though he’s not an attorney — and also launched IslamoFascism Awareness Week at his Duke University.
“That’s genius lateral thinking.
“I hear Hezbollah is waiting to be drafted for your remarks on Judaism in Israel and Richard Dawkins in on tap to write about Catholicism and religion when you visit the Pope.
“Help me, help you.
“Don’t say anything about Islam.”
This post was originally published on Voices at Auburn.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President at Auburn Seminary, and Editor of Voices at Auburn.