Donald Trump is about to preach “tolerance” to Muslims. Here’s what he should say

Riyadh calling.
Riyadh calling.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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It’s a scorching 108°F (42°C) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. For Donald Trump, however, a visit to the city this weekend will be a respite from the political heat surrounding his administration back in Washington.

The embattled US president, beset by scandals at home, plans to make a speech on Islam while in Saudi Arabia. On May 21st, Trump will deliver this speech at a lunch with leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries. According to national security advisor H.R. McMaster, the speech is “intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners.”

Critics of Trump aren’t buying the message of unity. “Let’s not forgot this is the man who stated last year that ‘Islam hates us’ and introduced the ‘Muslim travel ban’ on refugees and restricted visa applications from a list of Muslim majority countries,” says Sadek Hamid, a senior researcher at Oxford University’s Centre for Islamic Studies. One of the architects of the controversial travel ban, White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, reportedly wrote Trump’s speech.

Instead of lecturing Muslims on tolerance, Trump should try to hit the following talking points.

Interfaith engagement and debate

As well as Saudi Arabia, Trump’s first foreign trip includes stops in Israel and the Vatican. The relationship between the three Abrahamic faiths has historically been fraught, to say the least. But Trump’s trip presents an opportunity to draw on traditions of mutual learning to call for a discussion on the role of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in tackling the biggest ills in geopolitics.

“The best places that he [Trump] could look would be in the history of the Islamic civilizations,” says Joshua Ralston, a lecturer in Muslim-Christian relations at University of Edinburgh. Ralston points specifically to al-Andalus, also known as Muslim Spain, in the 700s-1400s and the Abbasid period in the 700s-900s in Baghdad. It was during these periods, particularly during the Abbasid caliphate, that Jews, Christians, Muslims and others gathered together to translate Greek philosophy, debate questions about God, justice, and the world, and began to shape some of the insights that would become central to scientific and philosophical developments in Europe, according to Ralston. While it wasn’t full equality between the religions, it was “a time of Islamic-sponsored interfaith engagement and debate.”

It’s that same interfaith dialogue that Trump should call for now. Muslim leaders shouldn’t be treated as a means to an end in fighting terrorism. These leaders are uniquely placed to spark change and dialogue within their communities. And as the world gets smaller and different communities are brought closer together, religious leaders can play a crucial role in encouraging social cohesion and solidarity.

Stop telling Muslims to denounce radical Islam

Trump will likely call on Muslims to denounce radical Islam. This clichéd approach has been taken by successive Western governments that—when faced with terrorism—call on Muslims to speak out. This focus on finding and empowering so-called “moderate Muslims” to decry extremism is, frankly, absurd.

Muslim and community leaders across the world have stepped up to talk to young people about how groups like ISIL distort their faith. “Muslim scholars have been unbelievably vocal,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism. Amarasingam points to the open letter, penned by over 100 Islamic leaders and scholars, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of ISIL) as one of countless examples in which Muslim leaders came together to explicitly denounce extremism.

This criticism fails to have much of an effect. Terrorist groups often dismiss mainstream religious leaders as “sellouts, as hypocrites, as those who have become to Westernized,” Amarasingam says. For people drawn to extremist ideology, traditional religious leaders are the people they’re probably least likely to listen to because they’re seen as part of the problem. The focus should instead be on empowering community leaders who know how to talk to young people and have a much better chance of reaching them. These people have been through similar experiences and understand the struggles young people go through.

In fact, ditch the term “moderate Muslim” altogether

Once and for all, world leaders should do away with the “good versus bad” Muslim paradigm. By making this stark distinction between moderate Muslims and extremist Muslims—suggesting the only way to be moderate is by being less religious or more liberal—Muslims are forced to conform to a narrow conception of what it means to be good.

“First of all it’s not realistic, second of all it’s offensive, third of all it’s patronizing,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World. For example, is a woman who wears the burka but denounces ISIL a moderate Muslim? And by refusing to take off the burka, is she on a dangerous path to radicalization?

“You’re limiting the kind of allies you can have,” Hamid explains. It’s not just secular or liberal Muslims who should be involved in the fight against extremism, but conservative Muslims and even non-violent Islamists, he adds. He points to fighters who have been battling ISIL in places like Libya, Syria or Iraq, who are not necessarily secular or liberal, but fiercely oppose the terror group’s ideology.

The definition of a moderate Muslim is also slippery. Trump will denounce radical Islam in a country that has done a lot to fuel and fund it (paywall). “Saudi Arabia should not be included in any category that involves the word moderate,” Hamid says. Therefore, is a Muslim’s radicalism dependent on how supportive they are of US foreign policy? That muddies the water considerably. Among the invitees to hear Trump speak is Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for alleged war crimes.

Time for moral leadership

Trump can wrap up his speech on one final important note: the desperate need for strong, moral leadership. The lunch with the world’s Muslim leaders is an opportune moment to tell the story of the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s hijra (his migration from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution). And to remind Trump himself that the Christian king Negus of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) welcomed and hosted some of the first Muslims who fled after suffering attacks and persecution in Mecca.

These stories are particularly poignant considering the global refugee crisis. The number of people forced to flee their homes in 2015 could fill New York, London, and Jakarta combined. Despite this, the response to the crisis has largely fallen on poorer countries, such as Lebanon and Kenya. Rich countries, such as US, UK, and oil-rich Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been widely slammed for their insufficient response. In an ideal world, Trump would show some humility and call on both religious and secular leaders to do more to end the myriad reasons that force people to flee—such as the destructive war the Saudi-led coalition is waging in Yemen—and do more to alleviate humanitarian crisis gripping so many countries.

What the world desperately needs is leaders to be brave; to serve their citizens and not their own interests. But, as Hamid points out, “autocrat leaders see something of themselves in Donald Trump.” As the Saudis prepare a spectacular welcome for Trump’s visit, the trip may end up forming a bond that brings out both sides’ worst instincts. The question then is how long the world can tolerate the geopolitical heat this will produce.