In Saudi Arabia: Trump Tells Muslim Leaders to Confront 'the Crisis of Islamic Extremism'

By Patrick Goodenough | May 21, 2017 | 9:54pm EDT
President Trump with Saudi King Salman at the summit in Riyadh. To the king’s left are Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

( – President Trump presented the world’s top Muslim leaders Sunday with a message that was both reassuring and direct, offering “closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce” but also challenging them to “drive out” of their societies those who claim inspiration from Islam as they commit terror around the world.

Addressing an unprecedented U.S.-Arab-Islamic gathering in Riyadh, Trump did not shy away from using terms eschewed by his predecessor such as “Islamic terror” and “Islamic extremism,” and he painted “Islamists” as part of the threat.

But he also made clear that he does not consider Muslim terrorists to be representing the religion of Islam as they wreak havoc that affects people of all faiths, including their own.

“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 told the leaders. “Terrorists do not worship God, they worship death.”

“When we see the scenes of destruction in the wake of terror, we see no signs that those murdered were Jewish or Christian, Shia or Sunni,” Trump said. “When we look upon the streams of innocent blood soaked into the ancient ground, we cannot see the faith or sect or tribe of the victims – we see only that they were children of God whose deaths are an insult to all that is holy.”

In a key portion of the speech (the White House prepared-for-delivery remarks made liberal use of capital letters at this point), Trump said the choice between two futures was not one the U.S. could make for the countries of the region.

“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,” he said.

“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists. 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.”

And the direct challenge continued:

“That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists, and Islamic terror of all kinds,” he said – departing from his prepared remarks, which said, “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.”

A number of media outlets noted that Trump had not used “radical Islamic extremism” – a term he did use in his inauguration address – but using “Islamic” as a descriptor for terrorism, as he did in Riyadh, is arguably as provocative to many Muslim ears.

Certainly the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has for years referred to terms like “Islamic terror” as prime examples of Western “Islamophobia.”

Still, OIC secretary-general Yusuf Al-Othaimeen praised the summit and offered no public criticism, and the OIC tweeted out a photo of Trump greeting him.

Saudi media accounts of the speech, the summit, and Trump’s visit in general were generally glowing.

Saudi King Salman listens as President Trump delivers his speech at the summit. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

CAIR: Trump should have repudiated 'Islamophobia'

Back home, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was not impressed.

“While President Trump's address today in Saudi Arabia appears to be an attempt to set a new and more productive tone in relations with the Muslim world, one speech cannot outweigh years of anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals – including an attempt to enact a Muslim ban by executive order, which his administration continues to defend in court,” said the group’s national executive director, Nihad Awad.

Awad said CAIR was still waiting for Trump “to acknowledge and repudiate the growing Islamophobia in America for which he and his supporters must assume a large degree of responsibility.”

Earlier, CAIR urged Trump to use the event in Riyadh to clarify whether or not he respects Islam, and to avoid using “pejorative terminology” and “anti-Muslim stereotypes.”

In his response to the speech, Awad also commented on the president’s use of the term “Islamist,” calling it an “ill-defined term” whose use will only perpetuate a “false” Islam-terrorism link.

“Unfortunately, ‘Islamist’ is often used to describe both those engaged in acts of terrorism and those seeking peaceful social and political participation based on mainstream Islamic values and principles,” Awad said.

“Without actually defining the term or outlining what criteria are used when applying that label to individuals, groups or nations, the linkage of the term ‘Islamist’ to violence and extremism unjustifiably associates all of Islam to the anti-Islamic acts of a tiny minority of extremists,” he argued.

The “Islamist” ideology is often associated with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, established in Egypt but with branches across the region and beyond.

Egypt, and many of the Arab Gulf states, have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood. Calls in Congress for the U.S. to do so too are opposed by groups like CAIR, which have long denied being fronts for the group.

(When the UAE government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014, it listed CAIR and the Muslim American Society as groups in the West affiliated to the Brotherhood.)

One group that did complain about Trump’s speech was Hamas, the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that was spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987 and seized control of the Gaza Strip a decade ago.

In his speech Trump, lumped Hamas with ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah when referring to the cost of terrorism – both in the number of victims and in “generations of vanished dreams.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement Trump’s speech was confirmation that Trump was following previous administrations in his “bias” towards Israel.

Trump is due to visit Israel and the disputed territories this week, and some Palestinian activists have called for a “day of rage” when he visits Bethlehem on Tuesday.

“Days of rage” in past years have often seen acts of violence and terrorism directed at Israelis.

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