Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud walks with US President Donald Trump during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
U S President Donald Trump was his candid, no-nonsense self when he gave his centerpiece speech Sunday in Riyadh. The US president made it clear, like none of his predecessors had, that the source of much of the violence and destruction that has torn apart the Middle East and caused incalculable suffering – first and foremost to Muslims – is Islamic extremism. And he did this in Saudi Arabia, the headquarters of Wahhabism.
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has tried to get the US president to avoid using in public the term “Islamic extremism,” substituting instead “Islamist extremism” so as not to imply that there is a problem with Islam per se, but, rather, that the source of terrorism committed by Muslims is a separate ideology, connected but different from mainstream Islam.
However, Trump, who repeatedly criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for shying away from identifying terrorism with Islam, was having none of this hairsplitting. He deviated from the text of his speech and talked in his characteristically blunt and to-the-point way about “confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
At the same time, Trump did not repeat statements he made during his campaign against Islam as a whole. Fourteen months ago, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, he stated that “Islam hates us.” In the presidential debate last October, he attacked Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over the Clinton Foundation’s receipt of funds from Saudi Arabia: “These are people that push gays off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly, and yet you take their money.”
On Sunday, after signing a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, Trump was taking a more pragmatic approach. Nevertheless, he made it clear that Muslim leaders in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt have a central role to play in combating Islamic extremism.
“Religious leaders must make this absolutely clear: Barbarism will deliver you no glory – piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be condemned.”
This was a clear call for religious reform and rejection of all religious justifications of violence against human beings, regardless of their religion. For as long as the most respected interpreters of Islam at Al-Azhar University, in Mecca and elsewhere fail to publicly oppose violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, even against non-Muslims, terrorism will continue.
Trump also had a message for Muslim politicians: “And political leaders must speak out to affirm the same idea: Heroes don’t kill innocents; they save them.”
This was a clear criticism of men like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was present during Trump’s speech. The PA spends millions of dollars in international donor money – including money provided by the US – to support the families of Palestinian terrorists who were killed or are sitting in Israeli prisons. As long as Muslim terrorists who kill in the name of Islam are treated as martyrs and are glorified, the atrocities and sectarian violence will continue.
Trump was right to note that the US could not solve the problem of Islamic extremism for Muslims. “It is a choice between two futures – and it is a choice America cannot make for you.” This is a challenge with which Muslims themselves must grapple within their own societies. However, the US – and Israel – can provide important support and aid.
Israel in particular has been forced to learn to deal with terrorist threats both inside and outside its borders. Israel has developed advanced technologies and tactics for fighting these threats. Today more than ever, Sunni countries – such as Egypt, which is fighting Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as offshoots of ISIS in Sinai – have common interests with Israel.
Trump minced no words in clarifying that Muslim extremism is a major threat to humanity and that ultimately only Muslims can combat this threat. They can look to the US and Israel for help.