During his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, President Trump is planning to give a lunchtime talk on counterterrorism and Islam to Muslim heads of state. What could go wrong?
Plenty. According to the president’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, “The speech is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners.” That’s a great idea in theory—most counterterrorism professionals advise building a common front with Muslim countries against jihadists. But for a president who campaigned on the dangers of Islam and proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants, the talk is fraught with political peril: Repeat campaign talking points, and he will infuriate the Muslim heads of state and the citizens they represent. Praise Islam effusively, and he will frustrate the people who elected him.
The speech is being drafted by White House aide Stephen Miller, who helped craft the clumsy language of the first travel ban and views the fight against jihadism as a religious war. But Miller will have to subordinate his own views to those of his mercurial boss, who could deliver a sloppy wet kiss of a talk as easily as a rhetorical slap in the face. For Miller and anyone else taking on the impossible job of crafting this talk, here are some do’s and don’ts to help the president deliver a forgettable talk, which has the best chance of reinforcing America’s partnership with Muslim nations against their common jihadist foes:
Do pray that this talk doesn’t happen. The president is not known for nuance, which is what a speech like this requires to escape the potential wrath of his multiple audiences. As someone who occasionally commits the academic’s sin of too much nuance, I wouldn’t volunteer for this mission at a community college in Peoria, much less in Riyadh. But the president doesn’t need to deliver this speech to win over other Muslim leaders. If they are present at the conference in Saudi Arabia, they have already determined that the domestic political price they might pay by cozying up to Trump is offset by the geopolitical benefits of playing nice with the most powerful nation on Earth.
It’s not too late to cancel the talk. The president’s team has already canceled a proposed address at Masada, where Israeli soldiers used to pledge loyalty to the state on the ancient site where Jewish zealots killed themselves rather than surrender to the Romans. The optics weren’t great for a president trying to revive the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The optics of high-fiving the Saudis in Riyadh for their mixed record of countering the religious underpinnings of Salafi-jihadism aren’t much better.
Do peek at Obama’s Cairo speech. President Obama delivered a speech to the Muslim world just months into his presidency, like Trump plans to do. And he grappled with many of the same issues—jihadism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran and nuclear proliferation, authoritarianism, and religious freedom. Although American conservatives dislike Obama’s speech because of the president’s lofty goals and his demand for Israel to freeze settlements, there’s an awful lot that Trump’s speechwriter can learn about how to respectfully call for social change in conservative Muslim countries.
Do share a draft of the speech with some actual Muslims. If the president must talk about the religion of 20 percent of the world’s inhabitants, his speechwriters should consult some of those inhabitants to make sure the speech doesn’t include any howlers. There are scores of Muslim patriots serving in the Trump administration, especially in in the military and national security agencies, who would be delighted to offer their advice. The president doesn’t have to heed it but at least his speech won’t be full of basic errors.
Do acknowledge that Islam is an American religion. Muslims have lived in the United States since the seventeenth century and maybe before. Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson may have disliked Islam but they often adduced it as a touchstone to test the strength of a state’s religious freedom laws. If Muslims could practice their faith, the argument went, then everyone’s religious freedoms were protected.
Do call on Muslim states to end blasphemy laws and to stop promoting religious intolerance. Some Muslim countries outlaw religious speech they don’t like as blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty. A few Muslim states like Saudi Arabia also promote religious hatred abroad. The president can call on his audience to put an end to both without publicly singling out any particular country or getting into the vagaries of whether halting them is in keeping with Islam or not.
Don’t offer opinions on what Islam is and isn’t. President Trump’s predecessors often called Islam a religion of peace. Candidate Trump often associated Islam with war. The truth is that Islam, like other ancient faiths, contains multitudes. Hippy-dippy Sufis in the West jostle for center stage with dour ultraconservatives in the East. Indonesian Islam bears little resemblance to Moroccan Islam. Ancient Islam is refracted through the prism of modern Islam. President Trump can criticize trends in the Islamic world today without equating them with the entire religion.
Don’t talk about “moderate Muslims.” To many Muslims, it sounds condescendingly like “our kind of Muslim.” Moderation is also in the eye of the beholder—what many conservative Muslims consider moderate would be extreme by American standards. President Trump would be better off using “mainstream” instead, a less subjective term that can be substantiated through polling. Talk about mainstream Muslim values that most humans agree on, like not killing civilians.
Don’t promote Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Islamic world. By virtue of controlling the two holiest cities in Islam, Saudi Arabia is certainly a leader in the Islamic world. But President Trump should resist the temptation to flatter his hosts by promoting them as the leader of the Islamic world. Many Muslims dislike the Saudi government’s ultraconservative brand of Islam and resent the kingdom’s efforts to export it abroad. And depending on the issue, other Muslim countries have exercised more leadership in promoting tolerance and peace. Even where Saudi Arabia has been most helpful to the United States—energy stability and counterterrorism—it’s been a mixed bag.
A few days after President Trump’s proposed address, Ramadan begins. It’s a time of fasting and self-reflection for most Muslims. But it is also a time of peril. During last year’s Ramadan, ISIS carried out multiple terror attacks across the globe in a show of strength to offset its losses in Syria and Iraq. It may attempt to do the same this year, which means we will need to turn to our Muslim partners for help in protecting ourselves. Here’s hoping that President Trump makes it easy for them in the court of Muslim public opinion by delivering a lunchtime speech that will be forgotten by the time coffee is served.