Before President Donald Trump delivered his much-anticipated speech on Islam and terrorism in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, much of the media focused on one phrase: radical Islamic terrorism.
Would Trump continue to use the term, as he did throughout the 2016 presidential campaign while criticizing former President Obama for refusing to “name the problem”? Or, in front of his Saudi hosts, would Trump find a less controversial variant, like “Islamist extremism”?
In Sunday’s speech, he had it both ways, decrying both “Islamists” and “Islamic terror.”
“There is still much work to be done,” Trump said. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds. We must stop what they’re doing to inspire — because they do nothing to inspire but kill.”
Briefly, “Islamist” refers to political movements that attempt to implement Islamic law and theology. “Islamic” refers to the religion itself, and many Muslims take offense at associating their faith with violence.
The phrase “Islamic terror” was not in the President’s prepared remarks, and his mention of it was an oversight made because exhaustion, a senior White House official said. But intentional or not, it expressed the Trump administration’s two minds on Islam.
On the one hand, Trump pleased American Muslims by calling Islam “one of world’s great faiths,” a sharp departure from his accusation, made just last year, that “Islam hates us.” On the other hand, the President cheered his conservative base by directly addressing “Islamic terror.”
Even if they are occasionally contradictory, those kinds of crowd-pleasing lines are common in presidential addresses, especially when written by committee. But the speech’s inconsistencies ran deep, especially when it waded into religious waters.
For example, Trump sought to undercut terrorists’ arguments that they embody Islamic ideals. They worship death, not God, the President said. They are “barbaric criminals,” not true believers.
“Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith,” he said.
Trump also explicitly rejected the “clash of civilizations” narrative pushed by some of his senior aides, notably Steve Bannon, who has warned darkly of a looming battle between the West and “Islamic fascism.”
Instead, Trump said: “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”
Shahed Amanullah, a former senior adviser at the State Department, said, “President Trump clearly separated Islam from terrorism, unlike candidate Trump.” Was it “on the job learning, or duplicity?” he asked.
On the other hand, Trump’s speech also adopted Bannon’s overall approach to terrorism — that it is mainly a religious and military problem — and that it poses an existential threat to the West.
“We now face a humanitarian and security disaster in this region that is spreading across the planet. It is a tragedy of epic proportions. No description of the suffering and depravity can begin to capture its full measure,” Trump said.
He called on Muslim nations to “take on the burden” of driving extremists from their houses of worship and their lands and touted his new $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis as a security measure against terrorism.
Trump also urged religious leaders to deliver a stark message: “Barbarism will deliver you no glory — piety to evil will bring you no dignity. If you choose the path of terror, your life will be empty, your life will be brief, and your soul will be condemned.”
So, while earlier Trump had insisted that terrorists have no truck with religion, he nonetheless insisted that mainstream imams and other Muslim leaders must somehow hold sway over them. If they did, perhaps ISIS would heed one of the more than 5,000 condemnations of terrorism issued by Muslim leaders in recent years.
“He clearly thinks terrorism is fueled by religion,” said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islam at the University of Notre Dame. “He doesn’t make any connection between terrorism and political resentments and the oppression of people.”
To be fair, Trump is hardly the first president to insist that terrorism both is — and is not — a religious issue. The Obama administration angered American Muslims, for example, by hosting a summit on countering violent extremism two years ago, and focusing almost entirely on Islam.
In a speech at the summit, Obama, like Trump, said Muslim scholars and clerics have “a responsibility to push back” on “twisted interpretations of Islam.”
But the Obama administration was consistent on at least one point: labeling terrorism as “Islamic” gives groups like ISIS the religious legitimacy they crave. It was mainly a political strategy, though administration officials did occasionally wander onto religious grounds, as when former Secretary of State John Kerry called ISIS “apostates.”
If Trump’s speech is any indication, a debate about Islam still rages within his administration — and perhaps within himself. One can easily imagine Bannon whispering “Islamic terrorism” into one of the President’s ears, and national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster whispering “violent extremism” in the other.
On Sunday, intentionally or not, Trump accommodated both.