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Mon 22 May 2017 10:47 AM

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Trump's speech on Islam failed to address root causes of instability

Arabian Business news analysis on the US President’s historic speech in Riyadh

Trump's speech on Islam failed to address root causes of instability
US President Donald Trump speaks during the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump's first foreign tour is greatly symbolic, including visits touted as encompassing the centres of the three Abrahamic faiths, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican.

His first stop in Riyadh was billed as a reset of sorts with the Muslim world, a chance to repair a rift that was always more pronounced among ordinary Muslims than their leaders.

It was a result of his campaign rhetoric, including his attempts to ban the entry to the United States of citizens from several Muslim majority countries, and statements pointing to a fundamental hatred and incompatibility between Islam and the West.

When news leaked out that the American president was going to deliver a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, there was much amusement in the Arab world at the prospect of a man with a long record on the campaign trail of vilifying Muslims, including those from his own country, and who attempted to halt the admission of refugees from war-torn Syria, lecturing Middle Eastern leaders on religion.

The choice of venue was also among the key concerns. While the Saudi kingdom as its borders are currently drawn is the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, there is no central Muslim religious authority in the vein of the Vatican.

Moreover, the emergence of groups like ISIL and its offshoots have spurred an intellectual debate about the spread of the austere version of Islam espoused by the kingdom, and which has spread as a result of Arab expatriate workers bringing back local practices to their home countries and the evangelising of Saudi-funded schools around the Muslim world.

Trump described his visit to Saudi Arabia as a “trip to the heart of the Muslim world,” and struck a conciliatory note that was a welcome departure from his rhetoric for the domestic audience, arguing that the US was not at war with Islam but that it shared the desire to defeat extremism.

“We must be united in pursuing the one goal that transcends every other consideration,” he said. “That goal is to meet history’s great test - to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.”

Trump struck several important notes in his speech, prime among them is the argument that the debate about radicalisation and the stamping out of extremist strains is something that ought to happen within the broader Muslim community.

The need for a reformation in Islamic education and thought is indeed something that needs to emerge organically from within the faith's adherents and cannot be imposed by a foreign power, nor can healing the major fissure between the Sunni and Shia sects that has become a key driver of conflict in the region fall to outside powers.

An honest debate about religion and its role in modern societies, and how to stamp out the rigid and violence-prone arguments of the more radical clerics is the province of Muslim communities around the world.

“The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” Trump said. “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. It is a choice between two futures – and it is a choice America cannot make for you.”

Trump also pointed out a fact that is often lost in the immediate aftermath of terror attacks carried out by Muslims – the fact that the majority of victims of terrorism around the world are in fact Muslims.

Neither ISIL nor other terrorist groups that proclaim themselves to be followers of Islam accept anything but the adherents of their strict and violent interpretation of the faith as true Muslims, and see no problem in killing them.

But the weakest link in Trump's speech is his emphasis on a security-focused response that aims to crush terrorists without addressing the root causes of instability in the Middle East besides a distorted knowledge of religion – that is the dearth of human development, fundamental freedoms, rights, and the deficit of democracy, an argument his predecessor Barack Obama repeatedly made.

Trump insisted that he was not there to lecture Arab and Muslim countries about how to live their lives, a tacit admission that he will not be raising matters of human rights and democratic reforms with the leaders who were in the room. But in reality radical insurgencies and the study of them points to a mix of political measures and force to bring about their end.

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

He insisted that religious leaders, many of whom already lack credibility with Muslim youth due to perceptions that they are both staid and compromised by the fact that they earn salaries from governments, to battle the ideology that leads young men to radicalisation.

The clerical establishment does have a role, but Arab leaders' responsibility goes beyond a security response to providing more opportunities for their citizens.