In an unexpected development, President Donald Trump is slated to give a speech on “Islam” in Saudi Arabia, as part of his first presidential trip abroad. In a May 16 briefing, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster explained that the address would focus on “the need to confront radical ideology” and “the president’s hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world.”
As both an American Muslim and as someone who studies Islam’s role in politics, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate just how complicated a religion Islam is, especially if you’re coming at it with Christianity as the main point of comparison. It worries me, then, that someone as deeply irreligious as Trump, who has apparently thought so little about what religions are, and what they mean, will give a speech about an entire religion (can you imagine Trump giving a speech “on Christianity”?).
Even the most well-intentioned presidents have struggled to find the right way to talk about Islam. Barack Obama, perhaps more than any other previous president (with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson), came into office with considerable knowledge of Islam and Muslims. But Obama struggled to take the religious motivations of extremists seriously, dismissing ISIS as a bunch of “thugs” and “fanatics.” When he addressed the role of Islam more directly, he had a tendency to lapse into patronizing clichés, exhorting Muslims to become more “modern.” There was also the odd spectacle of Obama’s top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, making theological pronouncements and deeming ISIS to be “apostates.”