Donald Trump, would-be peace-broker, fundamentally misunderstands the history of Islam

Big tests ahead.
Big tests ahead.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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This weekend, US president Donald Trump is traveling to the Middle East to deliver a speech about Islam. My bet is that within the first half of that speech—written by the Muslim-baiting Stephen Miller—he’ll brag about his yuge election victory, possibly leak some intelligence, and offend the entire Middle East. Yet pundits will desperately try to parse his words for signs that he’s matured, as if, at his age, people ordinarily make dramatic life changes.

Of course, millions of Americans (and others) may believe Trump when he preaches that more of the same—war, arms sales, and the short-sighted sponsorship of dubious allies—will bring about a different conclusion this time around. But the fact of the matter is that the Muslim world is deeply divided against itself, and Trump has neither the vision nor the historical understanding to try and fix it.

America was supposed to be the indispensable nation. Now it’s a nation that even our allies are keen to exclude. Nobody trusts us to make intelligent decisions anymore. In this moment, what is called for is not more of the same, but a deep dose of humility.

I am personally skeptical that a superpower in decline can turn itself around, just as I am skeptical that Trump can reinvent himself. But maybe those of us who care about the future of our country will stop looking at the Middle East as a testing ground for the latest weapons, and instead as a diverse, wounded region with tremendous history, and tremendous potential.

Part of that reorientation demands that Westerners try to understand the Middle East, and indeed the Muslim world, on its own terms.

Islam: A glossary of key terms

To aid in this reeducation (and to help Miller while he’s drafting the speech), I’ve prepared this handy guide to the terms Trump may be using—and that pundits and politicos will be applying in his wake.

Islam is a religion of some 1.6 billion people (one out of four of the planet’s population), founded on the belief that there is one God, that He communicated a common revelation to dozens of prophets, and that the last of these prophets was Muhammad. In the Muslim belief, Muhammad receives the Qur’an, the word of God, and teaches Muslims how to live out the Qur’an through his life. The great divisions in Islam relate not to disputes over the Qur’an, but to what Muhammad’s words, actions, and advice mean in different contexts.

Sunni Muslims account for roughly eight out of 10 Muslims. They believe Muhammad intended, after his death, for authority to be vested in the Qur’an, an interpretive class of scholars who mediate the Qur’an, and the collective religious wisdom of the community. Shia Muslims form nearly all of the remainder of the world’s Muslims, and believe that Muhammad intended for authority, after his death, to be vested in a chain of Imams who begin with Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, and descend therefrom. In the past, Sunni and Shia Islam often co-mingled. In the present, the divide between Sunni and Shia Islam is often violent.

Wahhabi Muslims are ostensibly a subset of Sunnis, although their movement emerged in violent opposition to Sunni Islam, and often rejects Shia Muslims as illegitimate. Much like the Protestant Christian reformers of the 16th century, Wahhabis overthrew the interpretive class of scholarship, and argued that Muslims could directly access revelation through a kind of sola scriptura. The result was a puritanical and frequently intolerant religiosity. Many Sunni Muslims now view Wahhabis with deep skepticism, although so confused is the present Muslim world that officially Wahhabi Saudi Arabia is seen to represent Sunni Islam against Shia Iran.

There are more than 50 majority-Muslim countries in the world.

But of these, only Iran, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and Lebanon are majority Shia. (Here’s a more thorough explanation, with maps.) Pakistan and India have huge Shia Muslim populations, though these are minorities overall.

Saudi Arabia is the only Wahhabi nation in the world, where the sect was established by force. Syria is ruled by an Alawite Shia minority—a Shia sect that is significantly different from the kind of Shia Islam practiced in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. But its population is largely Sunni, which lends the civil war, a revolt by an oppressed population against a brutal dictatorship, a darkly sectarian cast, into which breach jihadists have not only stepped, but been released.

Islamists are not jihadists. Islamists believe Islam has a role to play in governance, but they believe in peaceful means to get there. They are, as Shadi Hamid has argued, illiberal democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a good example. Jihadists also believe Islam has a role to play in governance, but they believe in the use of force to accomplish their ends. States that are effectively jihadist include Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, which imposes religion in the absence of democracy; Shia Iran, which practices an extremely limited democracy; and Egypt, which is run by an autocrat who likewise imposes and controls religion.

The same could be said for militant religious movements like al-Qaeda, ISIL and Boko Haram. All impose religion by varying degrees of force, but none can plausibly be called democratic.

The dawning of World War III

What you might notice here is that Muslims agree on many things—the Qur’an, that Muhammad was a prophet, that there is one God, that they should pray towards Mecca, that the cities of Jerusalem, Medina, and Mecca are sacred. But they disagree, often violently, over what these things mean in the modern world.

If Muhammad went to battle on some occasions, and sought peaceful coexistence on others, what does that mean in present circumstances? If I disagree with someone’s interpretation of Qur’an, what does that mean? If I am a Shia Muslim conscious of a long history of Sunni triumphalism, can I ever really trust Sunni Muslims again? If I’m a Syrian Sunni watching Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Syrian president Bashar al Assad team up to kill huge numbers of people like me, how can I possibly conceive of coexistence?

What is happening currently in the Middle East might very well be the beginnings of World War III: a messy, multi-sided, gradually expanding series of conflicts that has dragged in—or seen the opportunistic, short-sighted involvement of—global superpowers and local militias, fighting on a battlefield that defies easy or even reasonable expectation.

Unfortunately, what Trump will most likely propose is more violence, more force, and the arming of more partisan forces. This non-solution will only inflame, not tamp down, tensions—including the rise and reach of extremist forces like ISIL. Violent Western invention and extremist religious rhetoric feed off each other, creating ever-uglier outcomes.

How can the US actually bring peace to the Middle East?

What we likely won’t hear Trump propose are steps that could actually heal the Middle East, increase America’s prosperity, improve our security, and dial down global tensions.

First, the US should invest in countries that promote coexistence between different groups and ideologies. Tunisia is a perfect example. Tunisia should be higher on America’s list of priorities than ISIL. Just as a failed state sucks in countries all around it, spreading mayhem and mistrust, a successful state founded on the democratic principle of compromise—including between religious and secular factions—becomes a beacon of hope for the region and the world.

Second, Trump must support countries like Oman and Pakistan, which have tried to mediate between the warring factions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as their respective allies, and countries that have flatly refused to be dragged into this slow-motion war.

Third, the US should create a principle of parity. For every dollar of weaponry that is given to governments that don’t share the values it ostensibly claims to represent, we should invest a dollar in education, in promoting trade, in helping countries fight climate change, in partnering with American companies and corporations to build economic bridges—around tourism, manufacturing, social media, technology, and even housing and real estate. Why not promote a strategy of engagement that creates jobs?

Right now, the US is only making a divided region more divided. And the people who will pay the price aren’t the billionaires in Trump’s cabinet, but the everyday Americans and Middle Easterners who just want to live their lives in peace.

Follow Haroon Moghul on Twitter at @hsmoghul. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at