President Donald Trump on Sunday dropped some of his harshest rhetoric about Islam as he urged leaders of the Muslim world not to wait for the United States but to act on their own to root out terrorism.
Notably, the speech did not include the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term he used as recently as February in his first speech to Congress, though he did utter the phrases “Islamic extremism” and “Islamic terror.”
For the most part, he said, violence does not stem from Islam or any other religion.
“Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith,” he said.
In the first major foreign policy speech of his presidency, Trump spoke of the “peace and tolerance of all faiths” and praised the Middle East’s beauty and culture as he pushed leaders to act for the good of their citizens. He read his speech and did not appear to deviate from his prepared remarks.
“The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” Trump said. “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.”
The Middle East is rich with natural beauty, vibrant cultures, and massive amounts of historic treasures.
President Donald Trump
Trump also said he’d agreed to meet annually with the leaders of the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council to continue talking about fighting terrorism.
The highly anticipated speech to the Arab-Islamic-U.S. Summit came as the Trump administration is still trying to temporarily halt the entry into the United States of citizens from six Muslim-majority nations. Policy adviser Stephen Miller, who wrote the travel ban, also wrote the speech.
Fifty-six leaders of Muslim nations were invited to the event, including some of those whose countries would be affected by the travel ban, which for now has been blocked by U.S. courts. The leader of one of those countries, Omar al Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted on international war crimes charges, declined to attend the meeting and sent his minister of state instead. The leaders of Syria and Iran, bitter rivals of Saudi Arabia, were not invited. It was not immediately known if anyone from the other three – Libya, Somalia and Yemen – were in attendance.
The White House did not respond to questions about which countries attended and if any leaders raised the issue of the travel ban with Trump.
Trump’s address has been compared in importance to the one his predecessor, Barack Obama, delivered in Cairo in his first year in office. Obama, who was not popular in the Persian Gulf countries, had been accused of telling leaders how to run their countries, which Trump said he would not do.
“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.”
A White House official with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice said later that Trump prefers to “quietly but seriously raise issues” important to him. The official declined to say whether Trump pushed Saudi leaders on human rights issues.
The bulk of his 33-minute speech, delivered in the birthplace of Islam and the home to two of the most scared Muslim pilgrimage sites, was devoted to saying all countries have “an absolute duty” to rid terrorism from their soil.
“We can only overcome this evil if the forces of good are united and strong – and if everyone in this room does their fair share and fulfills their part of the burden,” Trump said. “Terrorism has spread across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land.”
He raised his voice for emphasis as he urged them to act.
“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists,” he said. “Drive them out! 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.”
Trump said he prays the gathering will be remembered as “the beginning of peace in the Middle East and maybe even all over the world.”
Trump mentioned terrorist events that took place on U.S. soil – 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida – but noted that despite all the killings that have taken place around the world, the vast majority of victims – 95 percent, he said – have been Muslims in the Middle East.
“In sheer numbers, the deadliest toll has been exacted on the innocent people of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern nations,” he said. “They have borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of destruction in this wave of fanatical violence.”
Trump singled out the Islamic State, al Qaida, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas, which rules Gaza, for an uncounted number of deaths but saved his toughest words for Shiite Muslim-ruled Iran, a message that would be well received in the room of Sunni Muslim leaders. He blamed Iran for devastation in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
“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,” Trump said. “It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in that region. I am speaking, of course, of Iran.”
Trump praised the Gulf Cooperation Council nations for signing an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism and later joined Saudi King Salman in opening the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh.
As a candidate, Trump talked about implementing a full ban on Muslims entering the United States, creating a database of all the Muslims in the U.S. and putting U.S. mosques under surveillance. But he has backed off those proposals for more modest ones.
“I think Islam hates us. There is a tremendous hatred there. We have to get to the bottom of it,” Trump told CNN said in March 2016.
But the White House official said he thought any suggestion that Trump had softened his tone was inaccurate. He said Trump’s position was tough because he was speaking to a roomful of leaders who’ve not acted as forcefully as they should have on terrorism.
The official later acknowledged that Trump’s positions have evolved. “As president you are different,” the official said.
After the speech, several organizations expressed skepticism, citing Trump’s new arms deal with Saudi Arabia totaling $110 billion, the largest single arms deal in U.S. history.
“Historically, the arms trade has resulted in more fighting, wars, and extremism,” Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, America’s oldest Muslim organization, said in a statement. “Rather than an arms trade, we encourage all nations committed to ending terrorism to instead invest resources into better education and a proven model of peace.”
Earlier in the day, Trump met privately with leaders of several nations, including Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, and participated in discussion with the Gulf Cooperation Council, an organization of Gulf nations.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi praised Trump, saying “You are a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.” Trump smiled broadly and said, “I agree” as everyone laughed.
Trump departs Riyadh early Monday morning for Israel. His five-stop, nine-day tour also will take him to Italy and Belgium. By the end of the week, he will have visited holy sites for Muslims, Jews and Catholics.
“If these three faiths can join together in cooperation, then peace in this world is possible,” he said.