There may be few things more difficult than for a Muslim to objectively assess anything Donald Trump says; particularly when he is talking about Islam.
But, if we are honest, a good deal of what he said in Riyadh regarding the Middle East, extremism and terrorism, was quite accurate. The most obvious inaccuracies, which we have come to expect from any US president, were the glaring omission regarding American atrocities in the region, and the dubious designation of the US and its Arab allies as indisputable agents of all things good and humane. The role this type of narrative has on the spread of radicalization should be obvious.
The arms deal Trump announced between Saudi Arabia and the US translates for most of us as a promise of yet more savagery in Yemen, for example; not to greater regional security. Telling us that when the US and Saudi Arabia bomb children it is good, and when others do so it is bad, already puts you in a discussion bereft of reason, and radicalization is free to run amok.
Most of what he said about extremism was spot on, however. Where sensible people would diverge from his comments, though, was where the transcript starts to adopt all capital letters. After saying that the US does not want “to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be…” Trump did just that when he instructed the Muslim world on how to deal with extremists. The author of the Muslim Ban, and the advocate of the Border Wall ordered us to:
“DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and
DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH.”
And, of course, this is exactly the opposite of how you can combat extremism. ‘Driving them out’ of the institutions and communities in which they can find the knowledge and understanding to remedy their misinterpretations is not helpful. Excluding and ostracizing extremists instead of engaging and educating them, is precisely how an extremist becomes a terrorist. If you “DRIVE THEM OUT”, they will not disappear, they will integrate with other like-minded, marginalized, and radical people who not only have no real or emotional stake in the society, but who will self-reinforce each other’s misconcepts and misreading of religious texts, and feed on each other’s hatred and resentment in an insular, angry, uninformed sub-culture of extremism.
As I have written before, what we must do, what we are obligated to do, is to invite them to discuss, debate, and exchange ideas and opinions. Censoring them, shunning them, and so on, is essentially the surest way to move them down the path of radicalization towards eventual violence. I take no exception to dealing harshly with the perpetrators of terrorism; but this is where we need to distinguish between “extremists” and “terrorists”. And we need to approach extremism with even more discretion; a person may have radical views on certain points but not on others; and the only way to correct their misunderstandings is through engagement, not banishment. This is how the Ummah has always addressed extremism, and this is why extremists have always been a relatively minor problem.
The mistakes of radical interpretation of Islamic Law can often be exposed and debunked by any well-informed Muslim in a matter of minutes, and by a scholar in one or two sentences; but those with extremist views must be present to hear it.