“Trump Softens Tone on Islam,” declared the New York Times headline, but that understates what the President did in his speech in Saudi Arabia Sunday.
Rather than merely softening his tone, Trump did what amounted to an about-face. To see this, you need to compare Sunday’s speech with the formal address on the same subject he gave in Youngstown last August.
Back then, Trump named the enemy as follows:
We will defeat Radical Islamic Terrorism, just as we have defeated every threat we have faced in every age before.
But we will not defeat it with closed eyes, or silenced voices.
Anyone who cannot name our enemy, is not fit to lead this country. Anyone who cannot condemn the hatred, oppression and violence of Radical Islam lacks the moral clarity to serve as our President.
“Radical Islamic Terrorism” and especially “Radical Islam” are terms that place Islam itself in the rhetorical cross-hairs. And Trump made no bones about the failure of Barack Obama to do so.
In winning the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan repeatedly touted the superiority of freedom over communism, and called the USSR the Evil Empire.
Yet, when President Obama delivered his address in Cairo, no such moral courage could be found. Instead of condemning the oppression of women and gays in many Muslim nations, and the systematic violations of human rights, or the financing of global terrorism, President Obama tried to draw an equivalency between our human rights record and theirs.
Implicit in the Youngstown speech was the idea that Islam is a religion in need of reform, regarding not only issues of gender and sexuality but also religious liberty.
Just as we won the Cold War, in part, by exposing the evils of communism and the virtues of free markets, so too must we take on the ideology of Radical Islam.
While my opponent accepted millions of dollars in Foundation donations from countries where being gay is an offense punishable by prison or death, my Administration will speak out against the oppression of women, gays and people of different faith.
Our Administration will be a friend to all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East, and will amplify their voices.
In the speech, Trump pledged that one of his first acts as President would be to establish a commission on radical Islam, “which will include reformist voices in the Muslim community who will hopefully work with us.”
Let us note for the record that some of those millions of dollars that went to the Clinton Foundation came from Saudi Arabia, which punishes acts of homosexuality with execution, imprisonment, fines, corporal punishment, or flogging.
So that was then.
In Saudi Arabia, Trump made no mention of “Radical Islam.” The written text of his remarks referred instead to “Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires” — a phrase employing a term (“Islamist”) recognized as differentiating the religion from a political ideology.
To be sure, at one point — because “he was just an exhausted guy,” an aide told the New York Times — he slipped off script and referred to “Islamic extremism” and “Islamic terror.” But “Islamist” or “Islamic,” the message of the speech was that Islam per se was not the problem.
“Saudi Arabia,” Trump said, “is home to the holiest sites in one of the world’s great faiths.” And he named other worthy majority Muslim countries: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” he said.
So much for that favorite Islamophobic meme, the Clash of Civilizations.
“We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” Trump said. “Instead, we are here to offer partnership—based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.”
Those shared values clearly did not include the human rights concerns he criticized Obama for failing to raise last August. They boiled down to: “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it,” he said. “This is a battle between Good and Evil.”
Rather than seeing Islam as a religion in need of reform, Trump portrayed it as one infected by an enemy host:
A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. 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.
Whatever the virtues of no longer regarding Islam itself as the problem, there’s something terrifying about this call for extermination. And did I mention the billions of dollars that Saudi Arabia will be sending to the U.S. for infrastructure improvements?
Eat your heart out, Clinton Foundation.