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Trump vows to meet 'history's great test' by conquering extremism / Who better to lecture Muslims than Islam expert Donald Trump?

Trump vows to meet 'history's great test' by conquering extremism

Addressing leaders of 40 Muslim nations in Saudi capital, US president moves away from anti-Islamic rhetoric of campaign

Martin Chulov in Riyadh
Sunday 21 May 2017 20.47 BST First published on Sunday 21 May 2017 17.20 BST

Donald Trump has attempted to stake a claim as a figure who can mobilise the Muslim world against extremism, using his much-anticipated speech on Islam as a rallying call for global cooperation rooted in reform, trade and faith.

Speaking in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in front of leaders from more than 40 Muslim nations, the US president vowed to meet “history’s great test” by conquering extremism with the help of countries who have suffered most from it.

In a marked divergence from the strident anti-Islamic rhetoric that characterised his campaign, he instead pledged not to “lecture” or “tell other people how to live … or how to worship”.

The address was the most significant in Trump’s five embattled months in office, establishing him as an ambitious leader, prepared to revamp views and policies in order to win trust.

Trump pointedly equated acts carried out by Iran with those carried out by Islamic State and al-Qaida – a rebuff to Barack Obama, whose legacy in the region was a pivot away from a longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia towards dealing with Tehran.

Invoking religious references throughout his 40-minute address, Trump urged Muslim countries to take the lead in the fight against terrorism – a message that his predecessor had also seen as central to US policy. But his decision to make Riyadh his first call on a debut overseas trip was another clear departure from Obama, whose address in Cairo in January 2009 also aimed to reset US relations with the Muslim world.

After waiting nervously for the speech – a centrepiece of the US leader’s visit – some Saudi and regional leaders reacted enthusiastically, expressing relief that its tone and message had been delicately pitched, avoiding cultural minefields.

But Middle East observers said the speech, while rich in rhetoric, delivered nothing definitive about how such a coalition would work. Trump seemed to convey that his very presence in the room was a watershed moment in a long fraught regional history, leading some in Riyadh to label the address as hubris over substance.

“This gathering is unique in the history of nations,” Trump said, speaking alongside the Saudi monarch, King Salman. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this evil for you. Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden if we are going to defeat terrorism, to meet history’s great test and conquer extremism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up safe from fear and free from violence. Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil?”

Trump framed the US position towards the region as one of “principled realism, rooted in common values and shared interests. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.”

This was a nod to a widespread economic and cultural reform programme that Saudi Arabia is implementing, which aims to overhaul a sclerotic public sector, create opportunities for a disenfranchised youth, empower women and open up to the world. No mention was made, however, of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

In Riyadh, Trump’s address won immediate plaudits from leaders in the room, particularly his acknowledgment that Arab Muslim nations had borne the brunt of the killing in the age of Islamic extremism.

“Terrorism has spread across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land. America is prepared to stand with you – in pursuit of shared interests and common security,” he said.

“But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. 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.”

Trump said US officials and private businesses had booked close to $450bn (£350bn) in deals during his visit, which he had billed as a package deal, offering trade and legitimacy, in return for lucrative agreements that would create US jobs.

Iran’s foreign minister pointed to the deals in a scathing response to Trump’s speech. Mohamad Javad Zarif said on Twitter:

Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia came on the same weekend as a presidential election was held in Iran where the moderate leader Hassan Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has no popular vote and its leadership has long been a heriditary monarchy which controls nearly all aspects of the state.

One Iranian posted a video of a young man and a young woman dancing in Iran on Instagram, saying: “Our response to Trump”. The video was shared widely online.

Ahead of the speech, one senior Saudi official said he worried about the tenure of Trump’s administration, which faces significant hurdles when he returns to Washington, with former FBI chief James Comey, whom he sacked earlier this month, due to publicly testify about his departure.

It is well known in Riyadh that he has problems at home and may not be terribly consistent as a thinker,” the official said. “Being able to adapt is one thing, but we have never had to work with a president like this. It is new ground for everyone.”

The reception elsewhere in the city was largely warm. “It was reassuring because it was a return to the traditional relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia,” said Saad al-Tamimi, 45, an officer in the national guard. “America is a great friend of Saudi Arabia and the friendship is rooted, regardless of our possible disagreements.”

Faisal al-Otairi described Trump’s sharp rejection of Iran as a potential ally as the centrepiece of the speech. “Iran’s arbitrary actions that have caused turmoil in the Middle East have been stopped,” he said. “It was better than Obama.”

In Cairo, Ahmed Shefai questioned whether Trump was being truthful when he said that America wasn’t seeking to impose its way of life on others. In reaction to Trump’s “message of peace and love”, he said: “Speech is always different from action, and I dont see any kind of action until now. Obama gave a speech about peace before – and so did Bush. Later on it was war.”

An Egyptian blogger known by the name of Big Pharaoh also watched the Riyadh speech in Cairo. “Unlike Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world, Trump’s speech will fall on deaf ears. Nobody thinks he means well,” he said.

Ruth Michaelson in Cairo and Saeed Kamali Dehgan in London contributed to this report

Who better to lecture Muslims than Islam expert Donald Trump?
David Shariatmadari

The US president once demanded 10 years’ worth of free oil from the Saudis. But after an emollient speech in Riyadh, all that was forgotten

Sunday 21 May 2017 16.55 BST Last modified on Sunday 21 May 2017 22.00 BST

If there’s anything consistent about the Trump White House so far, it’s that people get appointed to positions for which they are totally unsuited. More than that: they’re frequently the worst possible candidates for the role. That starts with the president himself, of course – less presidential than your average radio phone-in ranter. It was evident in the appointment of Michael Flynn, a man allegedly in hock to the Russian state, as national security adviser; of multiple Goldman Sachs alumni to oversee financial regulation; and of Jeff Sessions, who regards the film Reefer Madness as accurate social commentary, as the top law-enforcement official in the land.

In the latest example, the Sessions acolyte Stephen Miller, one of the architects of Trump’s attempted Muslim ban, has been put in charge of winning over the Arab Muslim world. Miller was the principal author of a speech, delivered in Riyadh yesterday, in which the president said he wanted to “deliver a message of friendship and hope and love”. He went on to argue that the fight against terrorism was “a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and … people who want to protect life and their religion”. Trump even shied away from the phrase he blasted Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for avoiding: “radical Islamic terrorism”.

The new approach is at odds with everything we know about Miller’s worldview, and that of his longtime supporter Steve Bannon. (Miller’s college-newspaper screeds about the war on Christmas are an entertaining study in one variety of radicalisation, if you can bear the grandiloquence.)

Almost all of Trump’s pronouncements on the subject stand in stark contrast to his words in Riyadh too (in October last year he condemned the Saudis as women-haters who “push gays … off buildings”. This weekend, he accepted a medal from their king).

What was the real meaning of his speech, then? There were threads of sincerity. Trump certainly does believe Islamic State needs to be destroyed. But the more emollient language, and the venue, suggest other forces at work.

One result of the president being so easily influenced, and his staff being at each other’s throats, is what you could call a “default effect”. With its ship’s wheel jerked to and fro in opposite directions, the USS Foreign Policy ends up charting a fairly standard course. We saw that in North Korea: Trump’s bluster dissipated to reveal a familiar plan. The US embassy probably won’t move to Jerusalem, as was at first mooted. Campaign talk of repudiating Saudi Arabia has likewise dissolved into arms deals and political cooperation.

Siding with Saudi Arabia and antagonising Iran in order to weaken jihadism won’t work
That, however, is a strategic mistake. While Trump was courting the leaders of a country in which women are not permitted to drive, let alone vote, liberal Iranians were celebrating Hassan Rouhani’s win in the presidential elections. Tehran is not truly democratic, as politicians are vetted by senior clergy, but it comes closer than any Middle Eastern nation, bar Israel and Turkey. And yet Iran was the country singled out for trenchant criticism, while Gulf regimes were told: “We’re not going to lecture anyone.”

This is not only hard to defend morally. Siding with Saudi Arabia and antagonising Iran in order to weaken jihadism won’t work, to put it mildly. Though the Saudi kingdom has taken part in military action against Isis, its state textbooks are deemed acceptable in Isis-run schools. It has backed militant Islamist rebels in Syria, and continues to export an extremely intolerant version of Islam.

Trump cut a weird figure at Murabba Palace on Saturday night, bobbing along to a traditional sword dance like someone who’d stumbled into the wrong wedding reception. Weirder still was the sight of Bannon sitting next to a senior Muslim scholar. These two reached the White House by painting a picture of the world that is absurdly black and white. Of course they look bizarre and hypocritical as they try to untangle real problems. They may even be the worst of all possible candidates for the job.

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