After nearly two years of Muslim bashing, first as presidential candidate and then as president, during which time he accused Islam and Muslims of hating the West and tried to impose a ban on Muslims entering the US, President Donald trump did a somersault of sorts in Riyadh this Sunday.
Addressing a gathering of 55 heads of governments of Muslim countries, Trump pivoted away from his earlier rhetoric of excoriating Muslims and Islam that the world had come to associate him with.
Instead, he called for a coalition of Muslim countries to fight terrorism, replacing his earlier phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” with “Islamist extremism.”
He described the fight against terrorism as one between good and evil, and not as a fight between civilisations or religions. His appeal to the gathering was to rise as one body to fight extremism as an aberration and referring to Islam as a part of the great Abrahamic tradition.
Donald Trump’s about-turn on Muslims and Islam in Riyadh was unusual but not entirely unexpected. Trump has been ambivalent about many of his campaign promises since his inauguration as president.
He has backed off from his promise to build his famous wall with Mexico immediately after he became president. His threat to deport eleven million illegal immigrants has yet to take a tangible form.
He has withdrawn from his threat to punish China for what he called its “unfair” trade practices with high tariff. His labeling of NATO as obsolete has not resurfaced.
The only one he tried to keep was his promise to put a ban on Muslim travel was in the shape of his executive order restricting issuance of visas to seven Muslim countries (later reduced to six). But that too has been stayed by court orders which his government has yet to appeal.
While Trump has been short in the fulfillment of his campaign promises, him and his administration have been embroiled in a litany of misdirected actions of his own creation.
Much of it emanates from a wide perception of Russian influence in the presidential election in Trump’s favour and the collusion of his campaign staff with Russian officials.
As a leader, the US has to continue to work to foster democracy and rule of law all over the world, starting with itself
Revelations of a connection between the Russians and Trump’s newly appointed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn led to Flynn’s resignation within three weeks of the appointment. But as the Federal Bureau of Investigation continued to pursue the Russian connection further with possibilities of other staff’s involvement with Russia, an irate Trump fired its director James Comey for vague and unprovable reasons.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia (and later to Israel, Italy, and Belgium) comes in the wake of these domestic adversities that have been compounded by hearings in both Senate and House committee investigation into the alleged Russian influence.
Trump’s foreign trip could not have comes at a better time for him to escape the daily hounding by the press on the Russian connection and his campaign staff’s alleged complicity in this. And President Trump could not have chosen a better place than Saudi Arabia, a kingdom grateful to the US for the protection it provides, with decades of business with US oil and defense industries.
The pomp and splendour with which the Saudis received Trump befits a royal reception, which must have pleased him enormously. More importantly for Trump, what better setting than Saudi Arabia to address a gathering of heads of Muslim governments to reset his tone toward them?
But after all the rhetoric and overtures are done, where will Trump’s call lead to? Will Trump’s message for the Muslim countries of the world to unite and fight terrorism lead to a coalition against religious terrorism and radicalism? Will the exhortation to fight evil alone unite Muslim countries’ resolve? Or was Trump’s address mainly meant to mollify Muslims who may have been affronted by his earlier remarks on Muslims and Islam?
Trump’s address was no doubt an about-turn on his rhetoric on Muslims and Islam. But in some respect it can be viewed as a pragmatic approach to fight terrorism, a fight that cannot be fought alone by the US or European countries. However, there are several imponderables in this call for unity to fight radicalism and terrorism.
First is the sectarian divide of the so-called Muslim world between Sunni and Shia. Although the latter accounts for less than a fifth of the total Muslim population, they account for over 90% of Muslims in Iran and over 60% in Iraq.
Iran is a major power player in the Middle East, and although currently fragile, Iraq is also potentially a big force. Iran is now an adversary of the Arab coalition as also the United States. Iran could have been a partner in this war against radicalism, but it is a pipe dream given the current reality in the Middle East.
Second is the credibility of the host country from which Trump gave his speech. Saudi Arabia may be the richest Muslim country and it may have spread some of its wealth to help other less fortunate Muslim countries, but it has also spread in these countries a radical branch of Islam -- Wahabism-- that is wedded to the spread of radical thoughts and beliefs that directly spawned zealots to fight in the name of Islam. A prime example is the Taliban in Pakistan.
It is ironic, then, that a call to fight radical Islam would be made in a place that is largely responsible for the spread of a radical ideology.
Third is the absence in many Muslim countries (apart from Iran) of democracy, participatory government, and above all, absence of the rule of law. It is not possible for countries that do not have transparency in state actions, and respect for the rule of law to wage a war against any organised group without popular support. A war against terrorism cannot succeed in a country where people cannot participate in governance, or where popular will does not get reflected in its government.
President Donald Trump may have made an appeal from a genuine belief that his call would get the Muslims to work together. But to make this work, his subsequent actions must reflect an understanding that the United States is not an island, it is an integral part of the world, and it has to build bridges to reach others.
As a leader, the US has to continue to work to foster democracy and rule of law all over the world, starting with itself. These are important elements in fighting the war against radicalism, be it Islamic or otherwise.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.