Just now, President Trump concluded what has been breathtakingly described as the return of the United States to the Middle East--as if the United States were not already involved, directly or indirectly, all across the region. He spoke at the head of a summit that purported to bring together leaders from across the so-called Muslim world, in a common bid to fight terrorism and extremism. (Neither of these terms will ever be defined, because many of the countries claiming to fight terrorism actively support terrorism--violence against civilians for political purposes.)
Some initial thoughts on this speech:
1. President Trump is president of the United States, not Saudi Arabia. Why did he have to go to Riyadh, the Kingdom’s capital, to reset relationships with Muslims, when there are plenty Muslim citizens of the country that elected him. Could he not go to an American mosque? Visit an Islamic school? President Trump does not care about American Muslims. Because--and this should not be surprising--he doesn’t care about Americans generally. He is the least patriotic, least generous, and probably least intelligent, president in recent memory.
2. Saudi Arabia is not the capital of Islam; it does not represent Islam, either. It does not even represent its own citizens, who are, in total, less than five percent of the world Muslim population. Saudi Arabia is a dictatorial monarchy. Trump praised Saudi Arabia while denouncing Iran, even as millions of Iranians participated in an election which makes that country more democratic, at least, than almost any of the countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. A speech that began ostensibly with a message of peace and love ended by arguing for the isolation and demonization of Iran.
3. Iran’s role in the Middle East is deeply worrying, not least in Syria. But at a moment of severe ethnic and sectarian tensions, and international interference escalating, is it not worrying that Trump is uncritically dumping weapons onto one actor and increasing the likelihood of more war, not peace? As states fight and destabilize one another, they open the door to greater penetration of extremist movements. Far from actually fighting terrorism, Trump’s speech promises to make conditions in the Middle East worse for everyone.
4. I’m endlessly amazed by the uncritical reproduction of the term “Arab and Muslim world”; Arabness is not coterminous with Islam, and there are plenty of ethnic groups that are overwhelmingly Muslim, too. But we don’t say “Turkish and Muslim world,” or “Indonesian and Muslim world. I don’t expect that to change, but I don’t want it to go uncommented on either. Because Islam is not organized hierarchically, nor anchored geopolitically. No one place more represents Islam than another, so to go to Saudi Arabia is not to go to the heart of Islam.
5. I was impressed that Trump pointed out that the majority of the victims of terrorism are Muslims. Finally.
6. Trump professed love, the common roots of the Abrahamic faiths, and called us the children of God. Unless, of course, you’re a refugee, in which case Trump wants to slam the door shut in your face. He made no mention of banning citizens of Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the United States, either.
7. Steve Bannon must be really excited that Trump denied the present moment was a conflict, or war, between civilizations, but instead a war between good and evil, where religion was not a marker for rightness or wrongness. I imagine many in Trump’s base are apoplectic. But what were they thinking? Trump is not even a bully. He simply seeks to ingratiate himself with anyone who is around him. If they are racist, he praises them--so that they will praise him. If they are Muslim, he praises them--so that they will praise him. He not only has no moral core, he appears to have no coherent sense of self.
Maybe this is why he has to put his name on everything. This is a quality no president should ever have, for it makes for indecisive, confusing, inconsistent leadership.
8. There was a great moment when Trump contrasted the present decay of the Middle East with its past glories. He blamed terrorism for this. I’d blame the archaic, sclerotic political structures that Trump tried so hard to appease. Terrorism is not a cause of the Middle East’s backwardness. It is a symptom. Terrorism is a non-state response to overly centralized states, which leave no room for political, religious or social diversity.
Why doesn't anyone explain what causes terrorism? If Islam is a great religion, and these terroristic ideologies are contrary to "true Islam," then how did they emerge out of nowhere (and why do they claim religious legitimation)? You can't stop a problem unless you understand its origins. Part of that is political, yes. But not all of it.
9. But perhaps the most damning realization I had, watching this shameful display of Trump and his Islamophobic advisors chumming it up with the world’s most politically regressive Muslim nation, was that American Muslims--and vulnerable Muslims generally--simply do not matter to most of the so-called Muslim world. That Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric was not merely campaign bluster is clear in the policies he’s proposed and supported: Islamophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-science. But hear me carefully.
I don’t believe that I belong to the Muslim-majority world--I can’t make a claim that is flatly untrue. But it would be nice to know that my co-religionists might evince the least interest in Islamophobia in the world’s most powerful nation. When the Muslim ban was first proposed, most of these leaders Saudi Arabia gathered were pindrop silent. It was ordinary Americans who rushed to the airport, showing more care and concern for Syrian refugees, for immigrants, for people a little different than themselves, than the so-called Muslim world.
10. The United States and Saudi Arabia create possibly the strangest partnership in the world. 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and yet we have hardly ever addressed the role of Wahhabi religious ideology in any substantive way. To provide huge sums of weapons to an unpopular regime, whose ideology is fundamental to extremism, strikes me as problematic at best, and almost suicidal at worst. What happens if the Saudi regime fractures? Who then gets these weapons? What happens if Saudi escalation in Yemen leads to an escalation in Russian support for Iran in Syria?
Ultimately this speech matters considerably. Not only because it cancels out the Obama administration’s attempt to reach a rapprochement with Iran, but because we are doubling down on an historic American-Saudi partnership that has not only prevented the rise of extremism, but has been unable to prevent the fracture of the Middle East. It is a kind of insanity, for which the peoples of the Middle East, and the United States and Europe, pay the price.
But so long as the billionaires remain deaf to the origins of the problems they so eloquently denounce, no progress will be made. What a disappointment.
Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. He is president of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul
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