In sharp contrast to the anti-Muslim rhetoric that characterised his election campaign, United States President Donald Trump now appears to be reaching out to the Muslim world in his new avatar as a pragmatic deal-maker. Choosing Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit after assuming office, the maverick Republican leader adopted the language of religious tolerance and interfaith unity while discussing Islam with representatives from 50 Muslim countries at a gathering in Riyadh. The tone and tenor of Trump’s address marked a significant departure from his rabble-rousing campaign speeches and demonstrated his keenness to be seen as a cool customer interested in doing business with regional players. He not only showered praise on leaders of Muslim nations for their efforts in fighting terrorism but also declared Islam as ‘one of the world’s great faiths’. The conciliatory tone is seen as a counterweight to his predecessor Barack Obama’s debut speech in Cairo in 2009. Ironically, Republicans had then denounced Obama’s outreach in which he had acknowledged some of America’s missteps in the Middle East. Trump is now seeking to chart a new course for America’s role in the region, guided solely by a common goal of rooting out terrorism. An important message from his Riyadh address is that America would not resort to military interventions in the region in the name of promoting human rights and democratic reforms. While pledging his country’s full support, Trump, however, put the onus for combating terrorism on the local regimes.
Significantly, Trump acknowledged that more than 95% of the victims of terrorism are Muslims and spoke about shared values and coordination with the Muslim nations to starve terrorists of their territory, their funding, and the false allure of their craven ideology and ultimately to send their wicked ideology into oblivion. Notably, he abandoned the harsh rhetoric against Islam that marked his 2016 campaign and also set aside his insistence on the use of the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Trump signed agreements with Riyadh, including the $110-billion Saudi-funded defence purchases. His Muslim outreach comes against the backdrop of weird decisions that he took soon after becoming the President. Barely a week after taking office, Trump signed an executive order banning entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. The ban was subsequently blocked by the courts. Trump’s first foreign outing serves as an escape from the gathering political storm back home over the ongoing federal investigation into his campaign team’s possible ties with Russia and his shocking order sacking FBI Director James Comey who was overseeing the probe. It remains to be seen whether his strategy to reach out to Muslims will help reset his ties with the Middle East.