Now that a couple of days have passed since President Donald Trump spoke at length in Saudi Arabia about Islam, let's take a deep breath and try to give it a fair analysis. If you didn't hear it or haven't read it, here's the text.
On the whole, it was better than I expected (though my expectations were low). Given Trump's incendiary, anti-Muslim language in his presidential campaign last fall, no one would have been surprised had this most indelicate of leaders tromped into the heart of Islam's founding and behaved like a bull in a china shop. But instead of repeating such nonsense as his campaign contention that Islam hates us, this speech was more measured, more careful, more nuanced.
Not perfect, but, by Trump standards, much better.
There was, of course, the traditional self-congratulatory bunkum that all presidents offer: "For Americans, this is an exciting time. A new spirit of optimism is sweeping our country." Well, it is an exciting time for Americans, but much more because it's a time of great uncertainty as we're being led by a president with a terrible approval rating who is enmeshed in scandals and investigations that conceivably might wind up with his impeachment on charges of obstruction of justice.
But you didn't expect him to say that, right?
One line that may or may not have been sincere but that I was, nonetheless, glad to see on the record was Trump's promise "that America will not seek to impose our way of life on others."
Both indirectly and directly, America has tried to do that in countless ways since we became an international superpower. The reality of global commerce means that at least indirectly this will continue, but at least some of the blame will go to the buyers of our Hollywood movies, our soulless TV shows, our weapons as well as our useful products.
Trump made that pledge more specific in his speech: "We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all."
In announcing the opening of a "new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology" in Saudi Arabia, the president correctly noted that Muslim-majority countries "must take the lead in combating radicalization." It might not have been received well, but at this point Trump missed an opportunity to remind the Saudi leadership that their on-going promotion of the rigid Wahhabi form of Islam around the world has made religious ideas that lead to terrorism more prominent. How else can we begin to explain that the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis?
He also failed to remind members of the House of Saud that they permit no religious freedom in their kingdom. Americans cherish religious liberty as a foundational human right. Trump could have spoken truth to power by pointing out that Islam is strong enough by itself (as it has proven around the world) and doesn't need to be propped up by a government that forbids the practice of any other faith within its boundaries. That was a clear Trump failure in this speech.
Trump's words about ending violent extremism were in considerable tension with his words from his campaign. In the Saudi speech he said, "Th(e) goal is to meet history’s great test — to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence and innocent of hatred. And young Muslim men and women should have the chance to build a new era of prosperity for themselves and their peoples." It was easy to imagine Trump, at this point, saying to himself, "But just don't try to do that in the U.S. We don't want you."
That attitude, expressed in various ways by Trump and many of his supporters, ignores the reality that the U.S. is home to many Muslims now and has been for centuries. Among the Muslims Trump seems to ignore are African-Americans, who make up a sizable portion of American Muslims. In fact, Muslims have been part of the fabric of our country since the days of slavery.
I did find it odd and a bit out of character for Trump, a man who seems to have a nominal commitment to religious faith and an even shallower understanding of religion, to sound a few times in the Saudi speech like a preacher: "If we do not stand in uniform condemnation of this killing — then not only will we be judged by our people, not only will we be judged by history, but we will be judged by God."
Then he used language one expects to hear from some of the more fiery pulpits: "Barbarism will deliver you no glory – piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and YOUR SOUL WILL BE CONDEMNED." (Those all-caps are in the White House official text. So, in effect, Trump is screaming at people about going to hell. Weird. Well, at least he didn't promise them 72 Miss USA pageant participants.)
He also described the fight against terrorism as "a battle between Good and Evil."
That's the kind of simplistic dualism we have come to expect from many political leaders. A true leader would find a way to stand for what is both good and just even while acknowledging that all of us -- even our countries -- fail at that. The damage around the world that Western Imperialism (whether political, economic or religious) has done kneecaps any claim that we in the West always are on the side of good.
Trump was correct when he noted that "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." But this Middle-East-centric language ignores the reality that the largest Muslim-majority country in the world isn't in the Middle East at all. It's Indonesia. And soon India's Muslim population may surpass Indonesia's.
The reach of terrorism, after all, is not confined to the Middle East, nor are its sources.
And here was a Trump line delivered in Saudi Arabia that I wish we had heard about America in his campaign: "For many centuries the Middle East has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews living side-by-side. We must practice tolerance and respect for each other once again — and make this region a place where every man and woman, no matter their faith or ethnicity, can enjoy a life of dignity and hope."
Instead, Americans got Trump's call for at least a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration. And, oh, my, what irony in the Saudi speech to hear Trump say that he was glad to "applaud Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon for their role in hosting refugees." Would that he'd say that about the U.S.
Well, Trump could have done much worse. I'm glad he had speech writers who were able to soften the president's raw emotions that seem instinctively to seek revenge and victory for self. This speech did not represent great diplomacy, but for this man on a tour of world religions at least there was evidence of the possibility of reason. The question now, as this Atlantic piece rightly asks, is what policy changes, if any, will Trump make now?
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AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
Just for comparative purposes, here is journalist Mehdi Hasan's critical view of the Trump speech in Saudi Arabia. He is convinced that the real Muslim-bashing Trump soon will reappear. I hope he's wrong but my hope isn't based on much.
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THE BOOK CORNER
We Stood Upon Stars: Finding God in Lost Places, by Roger W. Thompson. In some ways this is the kind of lovely little travel book you'd like with you on a long flight or at the beach. But it's deeper and more engaging than that. The author's sensitivities are profoundly spiritual, though not in an obtrusive, ham-handed kind of way. Think of the gentle way Annie Dillard, for instance, writes about nature and the ways in which it is infused with the holy. This is a book about finding eternal meaning -- and finding one's own soul. The method is by travel through the American West, though that, frankly, is incidental to the book's purpose. People, the author writes, "seem more lost than ever" even though we have "streets mapped and towns gridded and cars and phones outfitted with GPS." Thompson, an entrepreneur and author, writes of "reckless" beauty and of being drawn into the landscape, proof that there can be a theology of place. There is much personal in this volume, including the loss of a child in the womb. But there is also a sense of whimsy. And, most important, you will find here an eternal perspective: "There is something embedded in us that draws us to the horizon. We are not entirely at home here. So we look beyond the oceans and deserts and mountains to the stars, and we wonder why. It's the distant wind that catches our face in the breeze and we breathe it deep through our nostrils and it smells of freedom and we know it is freedom we seek."