For many American Muslim activists and scholars, the bar for Donald Trump’s speech to the Muslim world was low.
Speaking on Sunday from a podium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Trump didn’t repeat his earlier claim that “Islam hates us.” He didn’t warn of an influx of Muslim refugees as a “Trojan horse.” And he didn’t emphasize the need to “name our enemy” with the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”
So for that — for the absence of disparaging rhetoric about Islam and the Middle East — American Muslim academic and political leaders said Trump’s speech to a summit of around 50 Arab and Muslim leaders on his first overseas trip as president was noteworthy.
“I thought it was a welcome 180 on everything he’s been saying over the past two years,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which studies American Muslim attitudes.
Addressing Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, the 7th-century birthplace of Islam, Trump avoided references to “extreme vetting” or his travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries, which has been suspended by a court. Instead, he extolled Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” and the Middle East as a region of great beauty.
He urged Muslim leaders to drive terrorists out of their territories, but also noted for the first time that Muslims have “borne the brunt of the killings” in terrorist violence.
To some viewers in the United States, where Muslims make up about 1 percent of the population, the pivot was surprising — particularly after days of hand-wringing over the news that Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller, a longtime critic of Islam, would be drafting the speech.
But the shift also provoked cynicism.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Trump, it’s that he just wants to get the deal done, and he changes his message based on the audience,” said Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Texas A & M University and a frequent commentator on American Muslim affairs.
She noted that Trump on Saturday signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a key purpose of the visit.
“At the end of the day, he’s an opportunist and isn’t someone you can trust to hold his word,” Aziz said.
Trump made no mention of the United States’ 3.3 million Muslims during his 30-minute speech in Riyadh, an omission that disturbed some observers.
“Obama always tied in some element of Muslim Americans, about how Muslims in our country are part of our social fabric. But there was zero mention of Muslim Americans in Trump’s speech,” said Zaki Barzinji, former president Barack Obama’s liaison to the Muslim community and now a senior policy adviser for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “It’s almost like he’s trying to cement the idea that there is a division between the Muslim world and the West.”
Human rights activists and ordinary citizens across the Middle East have long criticized the Saudi monarchy and the region’s other authoritarian regimes as instigators of oppression, sectarian violence, instability and ultimately extremism in the Muslim world.
Wajahat Ali, a writer and attorney who has studied the anti-Muslim movement in the United States, thought that Trump’s unwillingness Sunday to criticize Saudi Arabia — a country Trump has previously linked to terrorism — was an indication of Trump’s hypocrisy, more than any shift in attitude or policy.
The Trump administration’s $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, signed on Saturday, was a key purpose for the trip.
“One consistent thread that we’ve found out so far is if you lavish Trump with praise, if you shower him with bling, if you take out cannons and jets and the red carpet, he will become putty in your hands. He will eat halal shawarma from your fingers,” said Ali. “For a moment, I thought that a Saudi PR firm had written the speech.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that Trump was not addressing human rights abuses because “the primary reason we’re here today is to confront this threat of terrorism.”
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on U.S. relations with the Muslim world, said the speech could help reset the Trump administration’s relationship with Muslims — if he sticks to the same tone.
“Putting the context of the speech aside, the imagery is striking: Here is Donald Trump in the birthplace of Islam speaking to Muslim leaders from across the world, and the Koran is being recited before he gives his address. That’s crazy and surreal to me,” Hamid said. “That’s at least somewhat positive in showing that he’s going out of his way to address Muslim leaders in a way that’s not overly antagonistic.”