What Donald Trump Got Right In His Riyadh Speech

Ideas should be challenged, but people should not be demonized.
05/21/2017 02:19 pm ET Updated May 23, 2017

Obviously, I have some disagreements with what Donald Trump said in his Riyadh speech.

Talking about Iran as if it’s the primary culprit responsible for Islamic terrorism — while praising Saudi Arabia, terrorism’s chief financier and home to both Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers — is disingenuous. Textbooks that glorify jihad, martyrdom, and fighting Jews and infidels are taught to Saudi schoolchildren to this day.

Moreover, saying that terrorists “don’t worship God, they worship death,” is the same kind of deadly, self-deluding rhetoric that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even George W. Bush peddled for years. Of course terrorists worship God — in fact, they do so with stronger faith and more piety than most other religious people. They don’t look at death as an end to be mourned like we do; they look at it as a transition to a better place, which is exactly what religion teaches. (To understand how this plays out in reality, read about the conversation I had with a Taliban supporter defending the murder of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan.)

Aside from these points and a few others, however, Trump delivered a good speech.

He openly referred to “Islamic terror,” “Islamists,” and “Islamic extremism.” This is even more honest than his preferred phrase, “radical Islamic terrorism.” Jihadists aren’t “radical.” They’re fundamentalists who adhere to the teachings and holy scriptures of their religion closely, which is what religions in general and Islam specifically (the word Islam means “submission”) ask of their followers. Many of my fellow liberals dislike the term “Islamic terror,” but in my view, as someone who grew up in Riyadh in a Muslim family, honesty should never be sacrificed for appeasement.

Talking about Iran as if it's the primary culprit responsible for Islamic terrorism... is disingenuous.

Trump also differentiated between jihadist ideology and the Muslim people. He said he wanted “young Muslim boys and girls” to grow up with security and without fear. He asked his audience of Muslim leaders to “stand together” with him “against the murder of innocent Muslims.” And, like Obama, he condemned the Iranian regime while also expressing solidarity with the largely Muslim people of Iran, praising their culture and history, and rightly acknowledging that they are their regime’s “longest-suffering victims,” who have “endured hardship and despair” under their fundamentalist leaders.

This speech was an obvious, complete reversal for the Donald Trump who once wanted a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States a little over a year ago. It was more measured, moderate, and may even hold appeal for moderate and liberal Muslims in the Muslim world, if (and that’s a big “if”) they can dismiss Trump’s bigoted statements about Muslims in the past. A growing number of Muslims today do want Western leaders to speak honestly about the extreme Islamic fundamentalist ideology that Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of, while not holding all of them responsible. Trump did not make this distinction before, but he seems to have at least touched on it in his speech. Ideas should be challenged, but people should not be demonized. “Islam” and “Muslims” are not synonymous.

Now, I am not a Trump supporter, and considering his past rhetoric, it may be too late for those who watched his speech to see him as credible. Moreover, the political undertones of Trump’s speech shouldn’t be lost on anyone. His choice to align with Sunni powers (Saudi Arabia) over Shia (Iran) is in line with America’s economic interests and Israel’s de facto alliance with the Saudis and other Sunni powers against Iran. This might seem like a pragmatic strategy temporarily, but could be devastating in the long term. I also know that Trump’s future — as a president who is at war with the American media, independent judiciary, and his own intelligence agencies — is anything but certain. I listened to his Riyadh speech, as I have many of his other reversals, with skepticism.

That said, we should give credit where it’s due.

We have had very little honest discourse on Islam. The left frequently regards any criticism of Islam to be bigotry against all Muslims. And the right frequently demonizes all Muslims because of problematic aspects of the religion. Both sides conflate criticizing ideas with demonizing people. But this speech — for all its flaws and oversights and the speaker’s questionable credibility — got closer to striking the right balance than many of us would like to admit.

If it’s received well, it could serve as an example to future Western leaders that one need not make a choice between challenging violent Islamic ideology and showing compassion and respect for Muslims.

We must do both.

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