The 'Muslim World' Does Not Exist

Presidential addresses like Trump's Riyadh speech rely on a faulty premise.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attend the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

“I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world,” President Trump said in Riyadh on Sunday, in a speech billed as a call to Muslims to promote a peaceful understanding of Islam and to unite against terrorists.

Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, but it is not the capital of the Muslim world. In fact, it’s worth remembering that “the Muslim world” is not actually a place. It’s a Western idea built on the faulty racial logic that Muslims live in a world of their own—that Islam is an eastern, foreign religion that properly belongs in a distant, faraway, dusty place. (This is arguably the logic that underlies Trump’s Muslim travel ban, currently held up in the courts: Islam is foreign, “Islam hates us,” Islam cannot possibly be a real American religion and that is why we can ban its adherents. Stephen Miller, an architect of the travel ban, was also reportedly among the writers of Trump’s Islam speech.)

If the Muslim world were the modern equivalent of the premodern concept of “Islamdom” (lands ruled by Muslims), it would refer only to Muslim-majority countries; countries where Muslims are national minorities, such as China and India, would be left out. If the Muslim world is a euphemism for the Middle East (sometimes Afghanistan and Pakistan are mistakenly lumped in, too), what to make of the fact that 80 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live outside the Middle East, including American Muslims like me?

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.

Trump’s visit also marked the launch of a joint Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. He called the fight against terrorism a “battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.” It was clear from his praise of autocratic Muslim leaders what the criteria are in Trump’s view to be a “decent” or “good” or “moderate” Muslim. The “moderate” Muslim is the Muslim who will endorse a version of his or her own religion that has already been endorsed by the U.S. government. The “moderate” Muslim is the Muslim who will uncritically toe the line when it comes to U.S. policy. The “moderate” Muslim is the Muslim who will suppress dissent; no protests of Trump’s visit were permitted in Saudi Arabia.

This is why I disavow the politically loaded label of “moderate Muslim.” In fact, I always introduce myself as a “radical Muslim” in order to recuperate the term.

As I’ve written before, we have come to understand the term “radical Muslim” as a slur, a synonym for “terrorist.” And yet, around the world, Muslims who are committed to social justice, anti-racism, feminism, anti-imperialism, and, yes, peace, describe themselves as radicals. There is an alternative, thriving, radical strain of Islamic thought based on peaceful dissent, represented through figures like Muhammad Ali. Ali, who Obama propped up as a moral exemplar to the Muslim world, opposed both the policies of the U.S. government and militant Muslims—be they the perpetrators of the Iranian hostage crisis or the San Bernardino shooters—whom he felt misrepresented the authentic teachings of Islam with their violence. In Saudi Arabia, the radical Muslims who give me hope are the young Muslim feminists, and committed Muslims, who are agitating for political reform and peace.

Although many Western analysts are focusing on Trump’s softened language on Islam, I do not find anything heartening or politically meaningful about the fact that Trump traded the vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric that helped get him elected for a more conciliatory tone aimed at pleasing his Saudi hosts. This is crude political expediency, ripped straight from his playbook, the art of the (weapons and oil) deal.

Trump’s dangerous fantasy world is one where violence flows out of America’s borders to a faraway “Muslim world” in the form of weapons sales and military operations, while jobs and dollars and oil flow back to the United States. Violence flowing toward America can be blocked at the borders simply by banning Muslim bodies. The Muslim world is tolerated, so long as it serves American interests from afar.