The fight against terrorism is a “battle between good and evil,” not a fight between “different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” President Trump said Sunday in a widely-anticipated speech in Saudi Arabia.
This is Trump’s first foreign trip as president, and he delivered the address to leaders of dozens of Arab and Muslim-majority nations. The Saudis said at least 37 leaders are present, NPR’s Jane Arraf reported from Riyadh.
The speech focused on pushing the leaders to do their “fair share” and fulfill “their part of the burden” in the fight against extremists. It did not emphasize human rights.
Trump told the leaders that the U.S. is prepared to “stand by you,” but “the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them.”
“Drive them out,” he told them. “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 noted that Middle Eastern nations have sustained the highest number of casualties from terrorist attacks, describing it as a “tragedy of epic proportions.” The region’s “untapped potential … is held at bay by bloodshed and terror,” he said. “There can be no tolerating it.”
Trump said that his administration is adopting a policy of “principled realism.” Here’s more:
“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 speech is closely watched in the region, especially in light of Trump’s attempt earlier this year to halt travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
It appeared to be a sharp pivot from a president who declared “I think Islam hates us” while on the campaign trail, as NPR has reported.
“I am reassured that there wasn’t anything extremely offensive said about Islam,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Weekend Edition Sunday. “It’s a low bar I guess, but Islam here is included as part of a common civilizational front.”
The speech did not focus on the religion, but Trump praised the Middle East’s ancient history and modern achievements.
“We welcome President Trump’s recognition of Islam as ‘one of the world’s great faiths,’ but that recognition does not wipe out years of well-documented anti-Islam animus,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement.
NPR’s Mara Liasson told the show that “most of this speech could have been given by George W. Bush or Barack Obama in terms of the way he described the Muslim world.” Here’s more from Mara:
“So I think that once again, you’ve seen the nationalist anti-globalists in the White House lose out. … And I think he’s back in the mainstream, certainly rhetorically, in the way he’s approaching the Muslim religion. Now, what will his base think about that? It’s very possible that we’re so tribal in our politics now they won’t care, anything he does is fine with them. On the other hand, it is a pretty glaring change from what he’s been saying for years and years.”
Trump heaped praise on efforts of several Arab countries to combat militant groups and terrorism. He said the United Arab Emirates was helping U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. He called the tiny rich country of Qatar a “crucial strategic partner.” Trump lauded Saudi Arabia for, among other things, joining the U.S. with sanctions on a Hezbollah leader and taking “strong action against Houthi militants” in Yemen. Trump praised Bahrain and Kuwait for anti-terrorism efforts.
But later in his speech, Trump turned to harsh criticism of Iran. He said the country offers “safe harbor” and “financial backing” of terrorist groups.
“It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder,” Trump said. “Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists,” militias and other extremist groups.
Until Iran is willing to change, he said, all nations “must work together to isolate it.”
Pledges to isolate Iran are essentially returning to a “status quo” in relations between the U.S. and the Arab world, Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told NPR‘s Morning Edition in March. After President Obama presided over the lifting of some international sanctions on Iran, President Trump’s stance echoes historical relations between the U.S. and Iran between the 1979 Islamic Revolution through the presidency of George W. Bush, “a policy which goes back to … pushing Iran back in the Middle East,” Sadjadpour said.
The anti-Iran rhetoric is welcome to the Saudi royalty. Saudi Arabia is largely Sunni Muslim, and is a strong rival of Iran, the region’s Shia Muslim power. The Saudis were vehemently opposed to President Obama’s communications with Iran and his backing of the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw many sanctions lifted against the country.
Trump refrained from criticizing human rights in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, long a source of international concern. “We are not here to lecture,” he said. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”
Saudi Arabia’s military is leading a campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, and have routinely been accused of indiscriminate targeting by human rights organizations. Thousands of civilians have been killed during the conflict. The U.S. has provided support to the effort by refueling planes and providing intelligence.
President Obama had at times raised human rights issues in his trips to Saudi Arabia and meetings with Saudi officials, though not always. The nonprofit Freedom House, which tracks human rights worldwide, classified Saudi Arabia as one of the 11 “worst of the worst” countries in “political rights and civil liberties.”
The speech came after a fanfare-filled day Saturday, beginning as soon as Trump departed Air Force One. Upon arrival in the country Saturday, Trump was greeted “by Saudi King Salman, a red carpet, royal guards, trumpeters and a jet flyover with red white and blue contrails,” as NPR’s Tamara Keith reported. He later signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion dollars, among several other agreements. Trump says the deal will create jobs.
It’s worth noting one group that was not mentioned in the speech — American Muslims. As Adnan Zulfiqar, a Truman National Security project fellow, told Buzzfeed: “He easily engages with Islam as a foreign ‘other,’ as opposed to Islam and Muslims as part of the American fabric.”