WASHINGTON – Delivering his first major foreign policy address since taking office, US President Donald Trump told Arab world leaders gathered in Riyadh on Sunday that he considers Islam a fundamentally peaceful religion, but that extremist elements within it are holding their nations back, and that force must be used to drive out heretics of the faith.
At times, Trump sought to distance himself from rhetoric that defined his presidential campaign and so concerned the very leaders sat before him. After claiming “Islam hates us” in a press interview last year, he told the Riyadh gathering of more than 50 heads of state that Islam is in fact “one of the world’s great faiths.” Trump appealed several times to moderate regional leaders as the true mantle bearers of a religion he has repeatedly disparaged wholesale.
Longstanding US concerns with human rights policies across the Arab world took a back seat in this speech as Trump focused exclusively on the global threat of religious extremism: “We are adopting a principled realism rooted in common values and shared interests,” he told the group. Trump’s remarks contrasted starkly with former president Barack Obama’s inaugural address to the Muslim world in 2009 from Cairo, which excluded any mention of terrorism.
The president's basic vision of a war against extremism, on which he campaigned, remained intact, as he called for a “renaissance” in a Middle East encumbered by “venomous” ideologies. America’s battle with terrorists does not pit civilizations against one another, he argued, but the “barbaric” against the “decent” – the civilized world against the uncivilized, “evil” forces working to undermine the West and the Middle East alike.
“Drive them out,” Trump told the Arab Islamic American Summit. “Drive out the terrorists. Drive out the extremists. 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.”
Saudi Arabia was Trump’s first stop on a nine-day trip abroad – his first foreign tour as president – that will bring him to capital cities of all three Abrahamic faiths. On Monday, Trump will travel to Jerusalem, followed by Bethlehem and the Vatican, before continuing on to a NATO summit in Brussels and a G7 meeting in Sicily.
In his broad appeal for moderation in the Islamic world, Trump claimed no allegiances in a parallel sectarian war that has aggravated extremist forces across the Middle East. He said the US would not take sides in the conflicts between Sunni and Shi’ite. And yet he singled out an alliance of Shi’ite governments and paramilitary groups as chiefly responsible for much of the region’s strife.
“No discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three – safe harbor, financial backing and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran,” Trump said.
“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” he continued. “For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.”
The president listed Hamas along with Islamic State, al-Qaida and Hezbollah as the world’s leading terrorist organizations responsible for a “humanitarian and security disaster” of “epic proportions.” In response, leadership from Hamas – which controls the Gaza Strip – pushed back on Sunday, characterizing Trump as “completely biased to the Zionist occupation.”
“The statement describing Hamas as a terrorist group is rejected and is a distortion of our image,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
Trump “applauded” Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon for accepting millions of victims fleeing the war in Syria, despite himself banning all refugees from entering the US homeland. He blamed Iran for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s war against his own people, but he declined to offer a similar rebuke of Moscow, which backs Assad’s regime with similar rigor.
“Iran has a rich history and culture, but the people of Iran have endured hardship and despair under their leaders’ reckless pursuit of conflict and terror,” Trump said. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud offered introductory remarks before the summit, in which he characterized Iran “at the forefront of global terrorism.”
“Our responsibility before God and our people and the whole world is to stand united to fight the forces of evil and extremism wherever they are,” Salman said. “The Iranian regime represents the tip of the spear.”
Iran held presidential elections over the weekend, in which incumbent Hassan Rouhani – considered a moderate at home – secured a second term in office. Salman and Trump both said their concerns are not with the Iranian people, but with the actions of its government, headed not by its president but by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, reacting to Rouhani’s victory, said on Saturday, “What we hope – what I would hope – is that Rouhani now has a new term, and that he use that term to begin a process of dismantling Iran’s network of terrorism, dismantling its financing of the terrorist network, dismantling of the manning and the logistics and everything that they provide to these destabilizing forces that exist in this region. That’s what we hope he does.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attended the Riyadh summit, among dozens of others. Earlier on Sunday morning, Trump sat for one-on-one meetings with Sisi, Kuwait’s Emir Jaber Al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
Previewing his upcoming visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Vatican City, Trump suggested that world peace could start with a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an achievement that would resonate around the globe and throughout its religious communities.
“If these three faiths can join together in cooperation,” Trump said, referring to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, “then peace in this world is possible – including peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
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