The President was in Saudi Arabia over the weekend to finalize another arms sale and give a speech about Islamic extremism. The speech, as it appears on the President's Facebook page, was an interesting balancing act, and from the snippets I've heard Trump delivered it well. The balancing act consisted of not denouncing the religion of Islam while not appearing to pander to it. In this way he avoids alarming people without insulting the intelligence (for want of a better word) of his fans with happy talk about a "religion of peace." Trump's main point. repeated forcefully in the highlight of the speech, was that it's primarily the responsibility of Muslim-majority governments to "drive out" extremists from their midst, but on this subject the President may have been too vague for his own good. What exactly is an "extremist?" On Trump's testimony, it seems to be someone with a proclivity toward violence. More specifically, they are "barbaric criminals." But for what purpose? Trump himself says that terrorists only invoke God falsely, that "Terrorists do not worship God [but] worship death." This misses the point by some distance. Any discussion of Islamic extremism (or Islamism) has to be a discussion about shari'a law. The issue since the middle of the last century has been whether governments in Muslim-majority lands are legitimate if they don't govern according to the traditions of the Prophet as canonically interpreted by some ancient school of jurists. If a line is to be drawn in the sand against Islamic extremism, it presumably needs to be made clear that extremists aren't entitled to force shari'a down anyone's throats, not even fellow Muslims'. Of course, Saudi Arabia probably is the wrong country to make that speech in, and the President has to be a diplomat -- as does any businessman of global reach, I suppose. But if anything, Trump's diplomatic solicitude toward the Saudis sometimes makes the Riyadh speech sound like a description of an alternate reality.
To my knowledge, all the terrorist acts carried out by Muslims in the U.S. have been carried out by Sunni Muslims, but in Riyadh Trump says that the fount of terrorism is Iran, the Shiite superpower. The Islamic Republic, which just had another apparently fair election in which the presidential candidate favored by the "Supreme Leader" lost, is the first cause of regional instability, in Trump's account. In his biggest absurdity, he calls Iran's intervention in support of the established government in Syria "destabilizing." To be fair, Iran certainly has been overly aggressive in its defense of Shiite rights outside its territory, particularly in Yemen, having no more right to act as guardian of the world's Shiites than Russia, say, has to act as guardian of the world's Slavs. But to say, as Trump seems to, that Iran is the problem in the Middle East or the Muslim world, simply ignores the autonomous origins of Sunni extremism in resistance, often supported by both the Saudis and the U.S., to secular or leftist regimes in the region. Americans might be confused by this focus on Iran, presumably caring little for geopolitics, were it not for the enduring hate engendered by the 1979-81 hostage crisis that makes it all too easy to portray Iran as the bad guy. Yet for all we know Sunnis probably would have flown the planes into the towers had the Shah of Iran remained on his throne. Scapegoating Iran for the global reach of Islamic terrorism today is an easy call in Riyadh, not to mention in the President's next stop, Tel Aviv, and it may fool people who still don't know (or don't care about) the difference between Sunni and Shiite, but taming or crushing the Islamic Republic is unlikely to solve the terrorism problem here or around the world, and I hope Trump isn't making plans on the assumption that it will.