What is President Donald Trump’s position on Islam? Does he consider Islam to be a religion of peace? Or, as Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn once put it, is Islam “like a cancer”?
Judging by Trump’s own ad-libbed departure from the speech he delivered yesterday in Saudi Arabia, the president is thinking about Islam with his typical combination of deep cynicism and utter cluelessness. In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Trump stood before leaders from 55 countries and three continents. He called on them to join the United States in “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists, and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
Each one of those terms — Islamic extremism, Islamists, and Islamic terror — has a precise meaning. By lumping them together, Trump put America’s fears and inconsistent rhetoric on display at a moment when much of the Muslim world was seeking clarity and parsing his every word.
“‘Islamic terrorism’ could be seen as inflammatory,” Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former senior director at the National Security Council, told The Intercept. Wiktorowicz wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post criticizing Trump’s speech for mostly ignoring the root causes of terrorism. “The Muslim world, when they heard this speech, was likely hypersensitive to these nuanced differences in terminology,” he said. “They were looking for signals as to whether the administration really believed what they were saying during the campaign.”
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly pounded the table with the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” and harshly criticized President Obama for avoiding the phrase, which the previous administration regarded as incendiary and inaccurate. Trump had different ideas. “I think Islam hates us,” he said in one interview.
As delivered, Trump’s speech differed from the script circulated by the White House. That version of the speech was going to condemn “Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.” Not “Islamic terror of all kinds.” The difference between “Islamist terror” and “Islamic terror” might sound small, but its significance is hard to overstate. “Islamism” is a term used by Western moderates to denote political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that combine religion and politics. “Islamic terror” is a term used by the American far-right to imply that Islam itself is inherently violent.
For any other president, apparently improvised phrasing on such a sensitive point would be scrutinized endlessly, just as President George W. Bush’s words were when he called the war on terror a “crusade” shortly after September 11, 2001. But the world seems to have gotten used to Trump’s shifty rhetorical style. What do words mean, anyway, if Trump can make nice with the Saudi government that a little more than a year ago he was blaming for the 9/11 attacks?
The question of whether Trump would speak the words “radical Islamic terrorism” was reportedly the subject of significant debate inside the White House. According to reporting by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, H.R. McMaster, the current national security adviser, “pleaded with the president not to use the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’” in an earlier speech to Congress, but the words remained.
“The president will call it whatever he wants to call it,” McMaster told ABC News in a broadcast interview the day before the Riyadh speech, which was reportedly written, at least in part, by Stephen Miller, the White House aide who put together Trump’s ban on immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries.
A senior White House official told CNN that the change in wording was due to Trump being “just an exhausted guy.” But it is difficult to believe that Trump would not be attentive to words that he chanted like a mantra during the campaign and used to stir up the Republican Party’s base. To them, the Saudi trip was a litmus test of whether Trump would live up to his campaign promise to frame his Middle Eastern policy as a clash of Christian and Muslim civilizations. Many seemed satisfied. Breitbart News put the words “Islamic Terror” in the headline of its piece on Trump’s speech, which emphasized the differences between Trump’s policies and Obama’s attempts “to appease Islamic resentment of the West.” The piece’s author suggested that the word change was entirely deliberate, not so much a gaffe as a dog whistle:
“The language is completely consistent with the language used by Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka, who have been driving this agenda from the White House,” Wiktorowicz said. “I don’t think anyone should be surprised that he was using these words.”