After repeatedly criticizing Barack Obama’s administration for its unwillingness to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” President Donald Trump followed in the footsteps of his predecessor on Sunday by condemning what he called the “crisis of Islamic extremism” during his first foreign trip in Saudi Arabia.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil,” Trump said in the birthplace of Islam, a religion he spoke of harshly before assuming the presidency.
“That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds,” he went on. “And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.”
Trump spoke in Riyadh at the Arab Islamic American Summit, an annual event attended by the leaders of 50 Muslim-majority nations. While he referred to “Islamic terror” once in his remarks, the president spent the majority of the speech urging Arab countries to drive out extremists in their midst whom he called “barbaric criminals.”
Overall, the president took a relatively conciliatory tone toward a country whose government he once suggested had links to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” he said. “Instead, we are here to offer partnership ― based on shared interests and values ― to pursue a better future for us all.”
Trump received a warm welcome during his first stop on his inaugural trip overseas as president. He refrained from pressing Saudi Arabia on human rights and its oppression of women and religious minorities. Trump has also so far been careful not to make too many public comments or tweets, sticking to a script so as to minimize controversies that would distract from the message of the trip.
Vali Nasr, a prominent scholar on the Middle East, cautioned that while the White House may hope that Trump’s speech is unifying, it could come off as “condescending” because it doesn’t acknowledge what the Muslim world has already done on issues like terrorism.
“People don’t like to be lectured on how they need to interpret their religion or whether or not they should be opposed to extremism,” Nasr said on CNN Sunday. “In fact, most Muslims say that they are opposed to extremism. They’re the ones who suffer from it... So there’s a certain degree of disconnect when an American president takes this attitude as if the Muslims don’t care about extremism, as if they have not been fighting extremism.”
Trump’s team also hopes his speech will shift attention away from the self-inflicted crises the administration has encountered over the past week ― from Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI director over the bureau’s Russia investigation to the president revealing highly sensitive information about the fight against Islamic State militants to Russian officials.
It was also supposed to be something of a reset from his rhetoric of the campaign.
As a presidential candidate ― and as a private citizen before that ― Trump had regularly criticized Obama for his decision not to utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Obama said he wouldn’t use the term to describe groups like al Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State because it gives them an appearance of religious legitimacy they do not deserve.
“One of the most common criticisms of President Trump is he doesn’t listen to anybody. He just is hard-headed and does his own thing,” former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said on CNN Sunday. “This is pretty clear: He’s listening to somebody... This is not who he has been throughout the course of the campaign and early in his presidency.”
In March, Trump said, “I think Islam hates us.” He’s also claimed that he saw Muslims cheering on 9/11 as the World Trade Center was attacked, and in 2015 he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Such comments have continued to haunt Trump, even as his administration has tried to move away from them. The government is currently defending his travel ban on visitors and refugees from six Muslim-majority nations, insisting it’s not a ban on Muslims. The courts, however, have repeatedly pointed to Trump’s own campaign rhetoric to cast doubt on that claim.
Jen Psaki, who worked for Obama’s White House and State Department, also cautioned against thinking that Trump’s speech Sunday means a complete shift.
“Speeches ― they are opportunities to reset. They don’t heal all wounds,” Psaki said on CNN. “I think what everybody will be closely watching in the Muslim world is what actions he takes. Does his administration keep pursuing the travel ban? Does he change the rhetoric at home?... What does he say when he does a rally in Ohio in two weeks?”
The primary author of Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia was Stephen Miller, a White House aide who was also the main person behind the travel ban.