President Donald Trump on Sunday looked to make clear that the United States is not at war with Islam in a major speech here on Sunday, instead defining the battle against terrorist groups as a “battle between good and evil.”
In a departure from the Islamophobic rhetoric he sometimes deployed on the campaign trail, Trump spoke out against the militant, political ideology of “Islamist extremism.” Trump’s use of that term — rather than “radical Islam” — sends signals in this region that Trump is putting distance between Islam and the ideology that fuels terrorist groups like ISIS.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations,” Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”
Trump referred to Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths.”
Despite the shift in rhetoric, Trump maintained that Muslim countries share in the responsibility for confronting terrorist groups that claim the mantle of Islam, calling on leaders of Muslim nations Sunday to “drive out” terrorists from their societies and countries.
“Drive them out,” Trump said. “Drive them out of your places of worship … drive them out of your holy land. Drive them out of this earth.”
He said that Middle Eastern countries “cannot wait for American power,” but must instead “decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.”
The President’s speech is expected to help him reset his relationship with the Muslim world after he made a slew of Islamophobic remarks on the campaign trail and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States during the campaign.
He highlighted that “in sheer numbers, the deadliest toll” of terrorist attacks “has been exacted on Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations.”
“In sheer numbers the deadliest toll has been exacted on Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations, ” he said. “More than 95% of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim.”
Trump’s comments came after he ticked down a list of major terrorist attacks in the US and also noted that Europe has “also endured unspeakable horror.”
Trump has sought to accelerate the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and his outreach signals that Trump understands he needs a more constructive relationship with Muslim countries, particularly those in the Middle East, if he hopes to succeed in his stated goal of destroying ISIS and other terrorist groups.
The major speech, which Trump delivered Sunday during an Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh to leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries, marks Trump’s first effort to reach out to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.
Trump said he hopes to assemble “a coalition of nations who share the aim of stamping out extremism.”
“Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith,” Trump said. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.”
Delivering the speech here in Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Trump sought to push past his campaign rhetoric — including a statement in March 2016 that “Islam hates us” — but will still be dogged by the efforts his administration continues to carry out.
But even as he addressed the Muslim world on Sunday, his administration is continuing to defend the executive order Trump signed to bar visitors from six Muslim-majority countries, which was blocked in US federal court amid criticism that the order is Trump’s attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to ban Muslims from the US.
During his campaign, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” floated the possibility of creating a database of Muslims in the US and called for surveillance of US mosques.
“I think Islam hates us,” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in March 2016.