US Muslims welcome Trump’s change in tone but remain sceptical
NEW YORK // Donald Trump offered an outstretched hand of cooperation, acknowledged that Muslims had suffered more from terrorism than anyone else and avoided references to “radical Islamic terrorism”, apart from one apparent slip that his officials put down to exhaustion.
The US president’s speech to Muslim leaders in a glittering conference hall in Riyadh won praise from his allies in the Middle East.
But closer to home, Muslim Americans described their scepticism that a president who has railed against the threat from Islam had really changed his stance.
Hakim Ouansafi, chairman of the Muslim Association of Hawaii and a key campaigner against Mr Trump’s travel ban, said it was a speech crafted for a specific international audience and one that could be undone in a single tweet or an unscripted aside.
“You don’t go to someone’s home like Saudi Arabia and bash their religion. We knew that wasn’t going to happen but we did pay attention and we listened for certain phrases he used in the campaign and since,” he said.
“There were certain words like the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ that he did not say and that’s a step in the right direction.
“However, I’m sceptical that he will avoid the term in his next tweet or his next gathering of supporters.”
Mr Trump’s campaign rhetoric and policy promises are blamed for an increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the US.
In March last year, as he closed on the Republican nomination, he told CNN: “I think Islam hates us. There’s something there that — there’s a tremendous hatred there.”
He insisted on referring to “radical Islamic terrorism”, despite objections that it risked blaming an entire religion for the actions of a few hardline militants.
And one of his first actions in power was to impose a ban on people arriving from seven mainly Muslim nations, a ban quickly overturned by the courts.
On Sunday, he pivoted to describe Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” and acknowledged for the first time how Muslims had suffered most at the hands of terrorists.
“They have borne the brunt of the killings and the worst of the destruction in this wave of fanatical violence,” he said.
Political pundits in the US praised his shift towards a more moderate tone as he tried to leave behind a string of scandals at home that are undermining his presidency.
But for others, the warm words were nothing more than a transactional effort to persuade Arab states to buy American weapons for the fight against ISIL.
“Trump: ‘I think Islam hates us, but a gold necklace, my face on a 5-storey building & arms deal worth billions mighta changed my mind’,” is how Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American political activist who helped organise protests at Mr Trump’s inauguration, characterised the speech on Twitter.
Abed Ayoum, legal and policy director of the American-Arab anti-discrimination committee, said simply reading a prepared speech from a teleprompter was not enough to change the course of his presidency. Mr Trump had done nothing, he said, to address the impact of his rhetoric on Muslims at home.
“He has not reached out to the American Muslim community, he is still defending his travel ban and he is still appointing Islamophobes and xenophobes throughout his administration,” he said.
“The speech hasn’t changed his standing in the American Muslim community. He is still someone that has targeted us and has not looked at us as an equal part of this country.”
Others found something positive in the sight of Mr Trump meeting Muslim leaders. It might help Americans — of whom almost half say they have never met a Muslim — to understand something they think of as a foreign religion.
Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times told the paper: “It is actually helpful, in my view, that American people, especially those who voted for Trump, see their president and his family happily hanging out with all the images they may typically see as scary: Arabic inscriptions on green flags, recitation of the Quran, Arab men with swords.
“For merely visual purposes, it is better that Trump appears in this conservative Muslim setting, rather than staying away from it.”
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