A Short History of U.S. Presidents Explaining Islam to Muslims

In giving a speech about the religion in Saudi Arabia this weekend, Donald Trump is poised to adopt one of Barack Obama’s errors, and likely to make it worse.

Palestinians in Khan Younis watch Barack Obama speak in Cairo on June 4, 2009.
Palestinians in Khan Younis watch Barack Obama speak in Cairo on June 4, 2009. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)

Islam, like many other religions, values exegesis. Historically, Muslims were expected to be learned in Arabic, the Qur’an, hadith, and jurisprudence to be taken seriously.

But American presidents, exercising one of the many privileges of being the leaders of the free world, have increasingly decided to get in on the act, endeavoring to explain to the world—and not just to Americans, but to Muslims living in predominantly Muslim countries—what Islam is and is not. Call it, borrowing the Arabic word for “meaning,” ma’ansplaining.

The trend was kicked off in earnest by George W. Bush, escalated by Barack Obama, and will now be taken up by Donald Trump, who plans to deliver a speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, in which he’s expected to speak about Islam. The administration has not offered much detail about what Trump will say. National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has said it will be “inspiring yet direct.” McMaster also said Trump will “develop a strong, respectful message that the United States and the entire civilized world expects our Muslim allies to take a strong stand against radical Islamist ideology, an ideology that uses a perverted interpretation of religion to justify crimes against all humanity. He will call for Muslim leaders to promote a peaceful vision of Islam.”

Given Trump’s past rhetoric about Muslims, from his statement that “I think Islam hates us” to his flirtation with establishing a registry of all Muslims in the United States, the address is occasion for anxiety. Furthermore, the speech is reportedly being written by Stephen Miller, who has a long record of overheated, inflammatory, and inaccurate invective about Islam as far back as his days as a college activist. Miller also helped write the Muslim travel ban that federal courts roundly rejected. Even aside from those factors, the project is a fraught one, of the non-Muslim president going to the land of Mecca and Medina to opine on what Islam is.

American leaders have been engaging with the idea of Islam since the founding, and Thomas Jefferson owned a Qur’an, as Denise Spellberg wrote in a 2013 book. When Jefferson found himself in a war with the Barbary states over piracy, a conflict sometimes cited as a spiritual precursor to today’s American wars in the Middle East, he discussed what he believed was a religious imperative guiding the enemy with Americans, but avoided lecturing the pasha of Tripoli on how Islam should oblige him to behave.

Until recently, U.S. presidents barely spoke about Islam at all, and when they did, it was often to provide boilerplate assurances about the freedom of Muslims to worship in the United States. Jimmy Carter on occasion asserted the common roots and shared values of Islam and the American project. (A frequent danger in presidential commentary of Islam, sometimes avoided and sometimes not, is the tendency to posit them as two separate things, when in fact Muslims have been part of the national fabric since before the Declaration of Independence.)

Speaking in 1986, Ronald Reagan was at pains to point out that there was not “a conflict between the Western democracies and the Arab world.” Yet he could not resist lecturing Muammar Qaddafi—then still closer to his phase as a Nasserite pan-Arabist—on his obligations to fellow believers. “I might add that Colonel Qadhafi's expectation of unquestioned support from the Islamic world strikes me as hypocritical,” Reagan said. “Nowhere is the slaughter of Muslim people greater than in Afghanistan, and yet Colonel Qadhafi allies himself with those perpetrating this crime on Islam and all of mankind.”

Like Reagan, Bill Clinton rejected the idea of a foreordained battle between Islam and the West. “I hope that the next time an American President addresses a nation with a Muslim tradition, he will be able to say that the progress of Indonesia and Nigeria and Morocco, all very different nations, has helped all of us put the lie to the tired claim of an inherent clash of civilizations,” he said in Turkey in 1999. In 1994, in Jordan, he said, “We know the traditional values of Islam, devotion to faith and good works, to family and society, are in harmony with the best of American ideals.”

Clinton’s innovation was the pious and benevolent declaration that Islam was not synonymous with terror.

“We both know it is profoundly wrong to equate Palestinians, in particular, and Islam, in general, with terrorism or to see a fundamental conflict between Islam and the West,” he said in Gaza in 1998. “For the vast majority of the more than one billion Muslims in the world, tolerance is an article of faith and terrorism a travesty of faith.”

Such statements were well-intentioned, trying to avoid an unfortunate and unfair association between the religion and violence. But they also laid the groundwork for Clinton’s successors to begin explaining Islam to Muslims.

George W. Bush made that possibility concrete following September 11. Even to his critics, Bush’s speeches about Islam remain among the finest moments of his presidency. On the one hand, Bush wanted to make sure that non-Muslims avoided demonizing the whole religion. On the other hand, doing so necessitated Bush making his own assertions about Islam.

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” Bush said on September 17, 2001. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.”

This was a view he repeated over the years, even as other members of his administration spoke of a “crusade,” and the U.S. government adopted policies that infringed on Muslims’ civil liberties. In 2006, for example, Bush said that “radical Islam [was] the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death.”

Will McCants pinpoints the trouble with such statements. Islam, like Christianity, defies such easy categorizations. “President Trump’s predecessors often called Islam a religion of peace. Candidate Trump often associated Islam with war,” McCants writes. “The truth is that Islam, like other ancient faiths, contains multitudes.”

Obama represented the apotheosis of the tendency to explain Islam to its own adherents. One June 4, 2009, just months into his first term, the president delivered a major speech in Cairo about U.S. relations with Muslims. It was a speech that only Obama could have given: as successor to Bush, widely disliked in the Muslim world; as a man who had spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and whose name was Barack Hussein Obama; and as a politician possessed of a cockiness sometimes unto arrogance.

Like Dwight Eisenhower, he extolled the long-running Muslim presence in the U.S. Like Reagan, he pointed a finger at Muslim terrorists as killing mostly other Muslims. But he also instructed on the proper way for Muslims to approach faith:

Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another’s. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld—whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

Obama’s goal, he told my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg years later, was “to persuade Muslims to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness.” He acknowledged that the speech had not succeeded: “I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”

Yet Obama kept sounding the same note.

“There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” he told Goldberg. “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”

As Shadi Hamid has written, the idea of “modernizing” Islam is patronizing, and the frequent calls for a “reformation” in Islam are historically nonsensical, depending on the assumption that the Christian reformation was both historically inevitable and part of a universal pattern, rather than being a unique event. (This is another manifestation of Obama’s weakness for Whig history.) Besides, one could argue that Islam did undergo a reformation, but the result was the unseating of the state and its approved clerics as arbiters of orthodoxy—the same state and clerics whom Western leaders so often hope can now command authority and lead Muslims away from extremism. Finally, for many “peaceful, tolerant Muslims,” the idea of needing such a debate is insulting. They recognize and reject extremism, but there is no magical, intrafaith summit that can resolve the challenge of extremism through debate.

Where debate fails, one can lecture and pronounce, as Obama and his aides also did. In 2014, the president declared that “ISIL”—as he referred to ISIS—“is not Islamic.” The statement infuriated anti-Muslim voices who essentialize the religion as violent, but also troubled more progressive voices who wondered about the president’s authority to rule on what was and was not Islamic. As Graeme Wood wrote, one can detest ISIS and see their view of Islam as a perversion, but the group is deeply steeped in a theological worldview. Two years later, Secretary of State John Kerry bizarrely declared ISIS “apostates,” which as critics pointed out echoed the claims of extremists who declare other Muslims apostate to justify killing them.

To his credit, Obama at least tended to avoid the temptation to call on “moderate Muslims” to decry terrorism. When he dropped by a mosque in Baltimore in 2016—a visit American Muslims felt was far too long in coming—he said, “Here at this mosque, and across our country and around the world, Muslim leaders are roundly and repeatedly and consistently condemning terrorism.”

Trump’s decision to give a speech about Islam in Saudi Arabia resembles a bizarro version of Obama. Obama’s speech in Cairo may have been unsuccessful, but he at least went to Egypt with vast political capital to spend and with a benign, if flawed, vision of Islam and its relationship with the United States. Egypt was a repressive dictatorship at the time, as now, but it offered a broader range of religious practices, and its government viewed Islamists (correctly, it turned out) as a political threat.

Trump, in the footsteps of the predecessor he frequently criticizes but often emulates, now heads to give his speech having frequently voiced a fierce dislike for the religion. Stranger still, he’s giving the speech in Saudi Arabia, which is a far more religiously cosseted state, and perhaps the foremost exporter of extremism in the Muslim world. Given the errors of his better-intentioned predecessors, it is hard to imagine Trump, with his history of inflammatory comments, coterie of anti-Islam advisers, and general disregard for facts and detail, will avoid the trap of positioning himself as the authority of what Islam is, is not, and should be.