President Trump embarked on an iconic first foreign tour this weekend to the Middle East that started with a stop in Saudi Arabia to deliver a much-anticipated speech on Islam. Americans sat at the edge of their seats in anticipation of what we all sensed was a defining moment in history.
The tour is described as resetting Middle East foreign policy, with President Trump as the first sitting president to embrace complex themes of faith tightly knotted in a rich and often violent regional history. Effectively, he’s channeled the most powerful seat in the world as a vehicle for the most burgeoning diplomatic struggle of the last century.
Yet what makes President Trump’s speech on Islam so iconic is that it wasn’t about Islam. It was about human potential. Presented at the Riyadh Summit, the speech paints a picture of the world that can still be created if nations unite in a common interest of security and advancement through mutual gain. That he spoke at the birthplace of Islam is symbolic because it points at the root of the problem: violent extremism linked to the most fundamentalist interpretations of Islam.
We Have a Common Threat Despite Internal Differences
As hinted in his speech, the last monotheistic faith is still awaiting its renaissance. While there are other issues including non-violent Islamic extremism (Islamism), government corruption, theocracies, autocracies, dictatorships, human rights violations, and failed women’s rights, and on and on, the greatest shadow darkening the future for a world of people is violent jihad that seeks to destroy all standing civilizations equally, including Islamic nation-states it sees as not being Islamic enough.
Back at home, Americans have questioned the authenticity of Muslim nations participating at the summit. American Muslims see the Saudi Arabia as hypocritical in its fight against extremism. Saudis are rightly accused of being both arsonists and firefighters in the fight against extremism.
What also rings true is the strong sense of survival and self-interest fueling the global coalition. Nations should be allies in a common fight, with the understanding that we will not agree on every front or tangential issue. We do not need to all agree; we just need to be aligned on the single greatest threat and work from there. That is how we move forward. Internally, each nation faces its own complications.
A common American reaction was petulant expectation that President Trump “tackle Saudi Arabia” short of going to war with the kingdom. Yet the man is not even allowed to effectively tackle homegrown Islamists in the United States without overwhelming opposition by media and interest groups using propaganda and disinformation.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is dealing with a house divided between Saudis who want progress and those reluctant to move into the twenty-first century, although both sides agree there is an existential threat coming from outside forces even more fundamentalist than they. They can also agree that it is in their collective interest to ally with the United States, something on which all representatives at the Riyadh Summit concur. President Trump understands the most direct path to effecting change is to work in people’s self-interest, to cater to advancement through mutual gain — a strategy that also won him the election.
Let’s Get Beyond Survival
At this exact moment in history, this is about survival. But it is also about what comes after survival. What does the next phase of human evolution look like, and how do we rally the world of people around it?
Trump’s Riyadh Summit speech builds on common themes in Abrahamic faiths to advocate for human potential. One of those themes is the archaic but powerful idea of “good versus evil,” as we heard with the repeat phrase “drive them out” as you would drive out the devil that possess the hearts and minds of people, causing mischief in the land. It’s a language not only understood by people in that room, but also by the world watching. Speaking in simple binaries that break down the world into good and evil, President Trump created an opportunity that doesn’t shame Muslims plagued by terrorism. Instead it gives them something greater still to be a part of. That something is humanity.
The alternative is grim. The detriment and the high cost of doing nothing, as Trump points out, is not only the death of life under religious extremism, but also the death of dreams. Let’s give people something to work together for, whether those people are heads of states or those crushed under the weight of war. The speech also powerfully reframed refugees not as destitute victims, but as integral to building stable societies that give them not only autonomy but also dignity.
In this way, not only was President Trump’s speech iconic, it was visionary for emphasizing humanity and what can still be achieved if we come together. As a Muslim reformer, I focus on getting us to the next phase of human evolution, something that cannot happen without uniting world powers for a common goal. It is a powerful move necessary to destroy the Goliath that’s draining our resources and diverting our attention.
That “Goliath” is the version of Islam that demands we forfeit our humanity. To defeat it, we will need everyone on board, including the people we see as enemies today. If we have to sit at a table with Saudi Arabia to do it, so be it. If Americans expect the Middle East to shed the skin of their tribal identities, then we too have to break out of the tribal mindset that only sees people and populations as one-dimensional. However flawed they still are, if Muslim nations are willing to come together in partnership with the United States for a common goal, then let’s work with them to secure all our interests.