Wednesday 13 December 2017

President is jumping in at the deep end with his risky speech on Islam

US President Donald Trump speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak after firing FBI director James Comey
US President Donald Trump speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak after firing FBI director James Comey

Mary Fitzgerald

A US president notorious for his anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail promises to deliver a speech on Islam during an official visit to its birthplace in Saudi Arabia. What could go wrong?

When Donald Trump steps up to the podium in the Saudi capital Riyadh in the coming days to talk about the faith of 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, many will be holding their breath. This, after all, is a man who said while campaigning to be president: "I think Islam hates us" and that the 'Koran', Islam's holy book, "teaches some negative vibe".

The planned speech will take place during Mr Trump's first foreign trip as president, which began yesterday. The trip is partly cast as a kind of pilgrimage, with Mr Trump visiting the lands of origin of all three Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - before travelling on to Europe for meetings with Pope Francis in the Vatican and Nato leaders.

The gruelling nine-day, five-country schedule is considered a major diplomatic test for a man not known for niceties or nuance.

While the entire tour is studded with potential pitfalls, perhaps few others appear as fraught with risk as Mr Trump's address on Islam.

Figures in his administration have suggested that the president will be more conciliatory than he was on the campaign trail. National security adviser HR McMaster, who is helping draft the Riyadh speech, has described it as "an inspiring, but direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology and the president's hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world".

He went on to claim the address will "unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilisation" and "demonstrate America's commitment to our Muslim partners".

But the fact senior White House adviser Stephen Miller is also reportedly involved in writing the speech has raised concerns.

Mr Miller was involved in crafting Mr Trump's controversial travel ban affecting several Muslim-majority countries, though the order has been blocked in the courts. Mr Miller is also known for his anti-Islam views, one of several such figures in the Trump administration.

A number of Mr Trump's advisers have claimed Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology. His strategist, former Breitbart founder Steve Bannon, has compared Islam to Nazism, communism and fascism.

Mr Bannon and others in Mr Trump's inner circle were responsible for peddling Islamophobic ideas to build and rally their base, with an uptick in attacks on Muslims in the US blamed on the inflammatory rhetoric that marked much of the Trump campaign.

This is central to the bind Mr Trump faces with his Riyadh speech: how to balance the carefully calibrated relationships the US needs to maintain with Muslim-majority countries in order to jointly tackle terrorism while not riling his right-wing base at home by appearing too accommodating in its eyes.

Several Sunni Muslim leaders in the Middle East have been broadly positive about Mr Trump so far - despite the travel ban affecting several Muslim-majority countries, but not Saudi Arabia - appreciating his tough position on Iran and his fondness for strongmen who have little regard for human rights.

Mr Trump's decision to give a speech on Islam in theocratic Saudi Arabia has been criticised by Muslims who do not share the Saudi government's ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam and resent its attempts to export it elsewhere through a network of Saudi-funded mosques and schools across the world. Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest mosques in Islam, which gives it much clout, but it is often seen as a pernicious religious influence beyond its own borders.

If Mr Trump's speech gives too much weight to the Saudi establishment's brand of Islam, painting it as representative of the faith, he risks alienating the millions of Muslims who dislike it.

This is not the first time a recent US president has sought to address the world's Muslims. Barack Obama did the same in Cairo at the beginning of his presidency. Mr Obama's speech received much praise for its challenge to the 'clash of civilisations' theorising beloved of some of Mr Trump's advisers.

Among those who will be listening closely to what Mr Trump says in Riyadh will be Isil, which also shares the idea of such a clash between Islam and the rest of the world. It has exploited Mr Trump's previous anti-Muslim rhetoric in its propaganda and will seize on anything to bolster its claim the US, and the West generally, is hostile to Islam.

Days after Mr Trump's Riyadh speech, Muslims across the world - from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country right across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the US - will begin the month of fasting and reflection that marks the holy period of Ramadan.

Mr Trump's remarks have the potential to help heal or further divide.

Irish Independent

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