Mehdi Hasan is a writer and broadcast journalist based in Washington.
Wow. Who was that bouffant-haired speaker reading from a teleprompter at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on Sunday?
Was it really the Donald J. Trump? He of “Islam hates us” infamy? The presidential candidate who said he would “absolutely” support a database to track Muslims and claimed there were “major, major problems” with Muslim integration? The president who signed an executive order to prevent 170-odd million Muslims from six majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States and appointed a dizzying array of card-carrying Islamophobes to his administration? The former “birther” who suggested that his predecessor was a secret Muslim and also attacked him for visiting a mosque?
For 33 minutes in Saudi Arabia on Sunday afternoon, this Trump did his best impression of a moderate. Gone was “Islam hates us”; replaced by a reference to “one of the world’s great faiths.” Gone were the constant comparisons of refugees to snakes and Trojan horses; replaced by praise for Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon “for their role in hosting refugees.” Gone was the divisive rhetoric of top Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who has claimed that “the Judeo-Christian West” is in a “very brutal and bloody conflict … an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism”; replaced by a strident statement from Trump himself that “this is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations.”
Nevertheless, an impression of moderation is all that it was. As much as I would like to believe that Trump is now a “true friend of Muslims,” as the Saudi deputy crown prince preposterously declared, or that the president went to Riyadh, in his own words, “to deliver a message of friendship and hope,” to do so would be both naive and irresponsible.
What is quite revealing was what was left unsaid in Trump’s address. Despite addressing a room full of autocrats, dictators and despots from across the majority-Muslim world, the word “democracy” did not appear anywhere in Trump’s 3,400-word speech. There were also zero references to “human rights” and “freedom.” His target audience consisted of the governments of majority-Muslim countries (“We are not here to lecture”) rather than the residents of those countries, including activists, dissidents, political prisoners and protesters struggling for free and fair elections and basic civil rights.
Nor did Trump acknowledge the three-million-plus Muslim Americans anywhere in his address. Contrast this with Barack Obama’s own “new beginning” speech to the Muslim world, less than six months after he became president in 2009. “Islam has always been a part of America’s story,” Obama told his audience in Cairo, pointing out how “since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government … they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch.” As the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) pointed out, Trump traveled “thousands of miles in search of moderate Muslim voices when there are millions of them all across our country.” Why won’t Trump open a dialogue with Muslims at home? Is it because they can’t guarantee him billions of dollars in arms sales?
Trump’s words on Sunday go only so far — his actions matter the most. Will our new Islamo-friendly president fire the members of his administration who have engaged in anti-Muslim bigotry? For example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has referred to what his boss called “one of the world’s great faiths” as a “toxic ideology”? Or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who as a candidate said Muslim Americans should not be allowed to run for president?
How about Bannon, the White House chief strategist, who has said “Islam is not a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of submission”? Or his protege Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser, who authored the so-called Muslim ban executive order and spent his university days railing against “Islamo-fascism”? Or Michael Anton, the National Security Council spokesman and deputy assistant to the president, who has written that “Islam and the modern West are incompatible”? Bannon, Miller and Anton accompanied Trump to Saudi Arabia.
Remember: Islamophobes are judged by the company they keep as well as their track record. Can 33 minutes really wipe out two years of anti-Muslim lies, smears, insults and conspiracy theories — all of which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, helped fuel a surge in the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States and which also, as the former head of the CIA suggested to me, turned Trump into a recruiting sergeant for Islamic State? Can they make us forget the presence of bigots such as Sessions and Bannon at the highest levels of the U.S. government or ignore horrific Trump proposals such as the Muslim ban?
Prediction: It won’t be long before the U.S. president himself reverts to (Muslim-bashing) form — especially, God forbid, if there is a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Don’t be fooled by a single speech. Donald “Islam hates us” Trump will be back soon. He hasn’t gone anywhere.