Donald Trump has attempted to stake a claim as a figure who can mobilise the Muslim world against extremism, using his much-anticipated speech on Islam as a rallying call for global cooperation rooted in reform, trade and faith.
Speaking in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in front of leaders from more than 40 Muslim nations, the US president vowed to meet “history’s great test” by conquering extremism with the help of countries who have suffered most from it.
In a marked divergence from the strident anti-Islamic rhetoric that characterised his campaign, he instead pledged not to “lecture” or “tell other people how to live … or how to worship”.
The address was the most significant in Trump’s five embattled months in office, establishing him as an ambitious leader, prepared to revamp views and policies in order to win trust.
Trump pointedly equated acts carried out by Iran with those carried out by Islamic State and al-Qaida – a rebuff to Barack Obama, whose legacy in the region was a pivot away from a longstanding alliance with Saudi Arabia towards dealing with Tehran.
Invoking religious references throughout his 40-minute address, Trump urged Muslim countries to take the lead in the fight against terrorism – a message that his predecessor had also seen as central to US policy. But his decision to make Riyadh his first call on a debut overseas trip was another clear departure from Obama, whose address in Cairo in January 2009 also aimed to reset US relations with the Muslim world.
After waiting nervously for the speech – a centrepiece of the US leader’s visit – some Saudi and regional leaders reacted enthusiastically, expressing relief that its tone and message had been delicately pitched, avoiding cultural minefields.
But Middle East observers said the speech, while rich in rhetoric, delivered nothing definitive about how such a coalition would work. Trump seemed to convey that his very presence in the room was a watershed moment in a long fraught regional history, leading some in Riyadh to label the address as hubris over substance.
“This gathering is unique in the history of nations,” Trump said, speaking alongside the Saudi monarch, King Salman. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this evil for you. Muslim nations must be willing to take on the burden if we are going to defeat terrorism, to meet history’s great test and conquer extremism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up safe from fear and free…