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Trump’s Islam Speech Is a Mistake

One of the possible pitfalls of Trump’s upcoming foreign trip [1] is the speech he intends to give in Saudi Arabia on Islam:

A speech was added in Saudi Arabia to provide an “inspiring yet direct” message to the Islamic world, according to national security adviser H.R. McMaster. That’s an echo of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who addressed Muslims in Cairo in his first major speech on foreign soil.

A second address in Israel, which local newspapers reported would take place at the ancient archeological site of Masada, was moved indoors to a museum. Transporting Trump to the mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea would have required the use of a cable car.

Both speeches were being drafted by Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller, who helped write Trump’s convention and inaugural addresses, with input from the large collection of advisers who are helping to plan the trip: son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.

Miller is a dubious choice for writing the first speech because of his views on Islam [2], but the speech itself seems ill-advised no matter who is writing it. A comparison with Obama’s Cairo speech is instructive. Obama delivered that speech very early in his presidency, just as Trump will be doing, and he managed to say just enough to raise expectations that would never be fulfilled. Everything Obama did from then on was judged against what people thought he had been promising in the speech, and invariably his policies fell short. If Trump wants to offer an “inspiring” message, his later policies are almost certain to prove disappointing. We have been told [3] that the “speech is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization,” but that is hard to credit when the U.S. under Trump is taking sides in wars that pit Muslims against Muslims.

Obama had a much more receptive audience, because he was not perceived to be hostile to Muslims as such, but Trump is perceived that way because he usually is. Trump will have a harder task than Obama did, because he first has to assuage fears about his hostility but still has to take hard-line positions to satisfy his supporters at home. That would be a difficult balancing act for any politician to pull off, and I doubt that Trump is capable of doing it. Since Trump isn’t exactly known for his grasp of nuance, he is likely to indulge in excessive flattery of his hosts or commit multiple diplomatic errors (or both).

There is also something misguided in having American presidents come to predominantly Muslim countries to tell them about their own religion. This has been true when Bush and Obama wanted to hold forth on this subject, and it is still true. At best, anything our president says will come off as boilerplate or condescending, so that the speech is quickly forgotten and has no effect. At worst, he is going to insult the intended audience and provoke a backlash, and that will make things worse than they were before. The location for the speech is also unfortunate, since Riyadh is at the heart of one of the most obnoxious strains of Islam in the world, and giving this particular speech there could be interpreted as giving a boost to Wahhabism, which is the last thing that Trump or any other president should do while visiting Saudi Arabia.

The problem with Trump’s Islam speech is related to the administration’s view of what Trump is trying to do with his first trip abroad. According to AFP, the White House sees [3] the trip as a way to promote unity among different religions:

US President Donald Trump will urge unity between the world’s major faiths on an ambitious first foreign trip that will take him to Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and Jerusalem, the White House said Tuesday.

While that may sound like a nice sentiment, this isn’t something that politicians can help bring about with the best will in the world. Very few people are going to take Trump’s appeal seriously in any case, because hardly anyone thinks that he takes religious faith seriously in the first place. It would be one thing to have the president argue for religious tolerance, or at least to argue against sectarianism and violence, but for a politician to “urge unity” among religions that have real, deep differences of belief is both misguided and sure to be rejected by all sides. No president is suited to such a role, and Trump is almost uniquely unsuited to it.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Trump’s Islam Speech Is a Mistake"

#1 Comment By Victory over Eurasia On May 17, 2017 @ 11:52 am

I am sure the focus will be on how he won the 2016 election, and perhaps include a map of all the acreage that voted for him

#2 Comment By Centralist On May 17, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

I can say while from a pure objective stand point such a speech would be like humorous to no end and if it was not Trump likely to be assumed to be satire of the average American’s seeming inability to have a nuanced view of the world. Being it is Trump it will likely be highly embarrassing and remind us all what happens when leaders get to separated from their people leading to said people voting in a gentleman that is unlike them in anyway to display their power.

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On May 17, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

It might be wise not to lecture Muslims on Islam, especially given his track record. Plus, his propensity for gaffes could result in some problems.

#4 Comment By SDS On May 17, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

It should prove entertaining regardless; hopefully not too embarrassing for us…or too damaging for America’s interests….

WE can, however, assume it will be all three; as Mr. Trump will find a way to win!

#5 Comment By Chris Chuba On May 17, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

It will give the Saudis and Jihadists a roadmap on how to manipulate him and his Administration. They probably already know but this will reaffirm their earlier suspicions.

1. Blame everything on Iran.
2. Send clean shaven reps to the U.S., pretend to be moderate but frightened by Iran.
3. Give us weapons to fight Iran and their allies (we are the good Muslims who applauded your speech).

#6 Comment By sherparick On May 17, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

I expect you could put everything Stephen Miller knows about Islam, its varieties, sects, history, heresies, relationship to Christianity & Judaism (much like Joseph Smith and the Moromons, Muhammed was a charismatic prophet who took ideas and myths from Christianity and Judaism to create a dynamic new faith), into a very small thimble.

#7 Comment By EarlyBird On May 17, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

From a preview of his upcoming speech as leaked to the AP:

“Islam, back when the Big Mo invented it in 1869 in what was then just called “The Desert” and is now called the ‘Middle East’ – and really folks, I never got the ‘East” part. New York’s the East, okay? Sure it’s in the middle, but of what? It’s the Desert for crying out loud! –

“But anyway, Mo was much like me: a Winner who beat out a bunch of Losers. And he won so much that many hated him for all the winning. Just like me.

“And I want to let you know I love the Muslims. Great people all of them, really…”

#8 Comment By One Man On May 17, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

One thing is sure: His speech will be attended by more people than are in the country at the time. And 125% of the attendees will adore him.

#9 Comment By John Mulligan On May 17, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

Trump being Trump, the world will doubtlessly only be more confounded by Trump’s upcoming religious trifecta, planned to enthrall Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. But perhaps Trump should skip the Vatican. O’Riles went there and the next thing you know he’s fired. Beware the Power. A word to the wise……ah well, in this case that can’t work!

#10 Comment By a spencer On May 17, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

Trump is some sort of great businessman, right? Why doesn’t he cut out the middle man and let the Saudis write the speech? Maybe the Head Wahabbi?

Bibi can write the one for Masada. By the way, someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Masada the site of a mass suicide? Maybe not the best messaging right now.

#11 Comment By jk On May 17, 2017 @ 8:54 pm

Oh God, this is Trump trying to be history making or global citizen bs.

This smells like some sort of nation building or US taxpayer billion dollar pledge of some sort to promise the US to further drown in Muslim sectarian wars or Israeli security guarantees. Israel is certainly the most powerful state in the Union along with the best healthcare.

#12 Comment By rayray On May 17, 2017 @ 11:29 pm

Making Islam great again.

#13 Comment By KevinS On May 18, 2017 @ 7:26 am

Stephen Miller writing a speech on Islam for Trump to deliver in an Islamic country? What could possibly go wrong??

#14 Comment By moderateGuy On May 18, 2017 @ 10:56 am

Trump should tell them the truth. Islam is an evil death cult that does not belong in a civilized world. Individuals from Islamic countries will be welcomed only if they renounce that evil.

#15 Comment By Cassie On May 18, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

moderateGuy – I would pay serious money to watch Trump say that to the Sauds. Serious money.

#16 Comment By a spencer On May 18, 2017 @ 5:02 pm

moderateGuy,

“moderate” like Syrian “moderate”?

wew, lads, I have been surrounded by muslims for a decent percentage of my life and here I am, typing away at my keyboard.

#17 Comment By Whine Merchant On May 18, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

All will be revealed [or confirmed] when he starts his speech with “D’oh…”

#18 Comment By John Mulligan On May 19, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

Some seem worried as Trumps embarks upon his religious trifecta intended to astound and inspire Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. Don’t worry he will confound more than astound. Believe me. But perhaps he should skip the Vatican. O’Riles went there and the next thing ya know he’s out of a job.
Beware the Power.

#19 Comment By Adriana I Pena On May 20, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

Well, he already had his faux pas. He gave the thumbs up gesture. Alas, in Saudi Arabia it is the same as giving the middle finger.