Trump will also visit Jerusalem and the Vatican on his Abrahamic religions world tour, but we certainly do not imagine him addressing all Jews or all Christians from those cities. We understand Israel to be a modern, Zionist nation-state, not the representative of all Jews worldwide. Similarly, we understand the Vatican as the institutional center of a global Catholic network, not the heart of Christendom.
The same should apply to the theocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the Kingdom does not and cannot speak for all Muslims around the world just because sites Muslims consider sacred are contained within its borders. In fact, when Muslim pilgrims arrive in Mecca, they are often dismayed to find that the Saudi government has allowed hotels, fast-food chains, and malls to encroach right up to the very edges of Muslims’ holiest sites. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. government allowing a Starbucks to be built next to the Grand Canyon; the Saudi government’s urban planning aesthetic, driven by profit, is not sensitive to the sensibilities of most Muslims. And the Saudi government’s bombing campaigns in Yemen, and blocking of humanitarian aid, have sparked moral condemnation among ordinary Muslims and human rights activists worldwide.
Muslims around the world are expressing a wide variety of reactions to Trump’s address, just as they expressed a wide variety of reactions to President Obama’s address in Cairo in 2009. Obama’s “Muslim World Address” was framed as a renewed bid for the Muslim hearts and minds that had been the “other” front in President Bush’s War on Terror, in order to signal that Americans were not “at war with Islam.” Every word of Obama’s speech had been carefully weighed by both the president himself and by his Muslim American speechwriter, Rashad Hussain, and every word was thoroughly scrutinized afterwards. Was Obama’s tone too conciliatory or too critical of Muslim societies? Was it a mark of integrity or of weakness for him to admit American complicity in upholding the Iranian shah’s brutal regime? And what about Obama’s decision to cite American Muslims like Muhammad Ali as proof of American exceptionalism and as evidence of the success and tolerance enjoyed by Muslim minorities in the U.S.?
Nevertheless, Obama’s speech did inspire hope that the U.S. would begin to properly promote democracy, freedom, and stability in the postcolonial world. On the eve of Ramadan, date sellers in Cairo named the most expensive, juiciest holiday fruit after Obama and the cheaper, dried up ones after Bush, reflecting the political mood.
Trump, too, has given a pre-Ramadan speech that is sure to be widely dissected—but his actions speak louder than his words. He is not only countenancing Saudi Arabia’s strikes against civilians in Yemen, which the United Nations reported could constitute crimes against humanity, but appears to be actually rewarding the Saudis: He just inked a weapons sale to them worth $110 billion. Obama had also sold billions in weapons to the Saudis, but he did freeze weapons sales after a strike on a funeral home reflected a pattern of attacks on civilians. Trump’s deal is a sinister reversal of Obama’s policy and belies anything he said in his Islam speech about peace or refugees. The war in Yemen, after all, could produce the world’s next refugee crisis.