President Trump, in the first major speech of his trip to the Middle East, discarded the politically correct rhetorical barrier to calling Islamist extremists what they are – Islamist extremists.
Good for him. We spent eight years being lectured by President Obama about how calling terrorists what they are would just give them a recruiting tool, as if that was what they lacked. That if we were just “nicer” and didn’t use labels they didn’t like, this would cause them to renounce their jihadist bloodlust, put down their weapons and suicide vests and join the civilized, secular world.
That didn’t work. It was never going to work.
But simply changing the label to something more accurate is not going to work, either, if that’s all the president does. Words do matter, and speaking more honestly about an obscene, murderous ideology is a good first step.
But in this case, there were other words and actions that mattered, as well. And on that front, Trump’s opening stop in Saudi Arabia didn’t really exemplify what he hailed as America’s new strategy of “principled realism.”
It was good to hear him say that the malignant spread of terrorism is not due to the “arrogance” of the U.S., and that it is a crisis only Muslims can solve.
But he essentially looked the other way when it came to the policies and actions of the government he was visiting, which would justifiably be labeled as religious despotism if they existed in the U.S. Although, if they did exist in the U.S., anybody living in the country who gave it that label would risk prison, torture and death.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, with no free elections. There are no political parties allowed. There is no separation of church and state – the religion is the state. The nation’s constitution is the Koran, and even the king is required to comply with Sharia (Islamic) law.
As a few critics have noted, while the president was treated like royalty, given that he is a head of state, other travelers to Saudi Arabia get multiple, stark warnings by the U.S. State Department about the realities of life there, even for visitors: Those who violate the nation’s laws, even unknowingly, “may be expelled, arrested, imprisoned, subject to physical punishments, or even executed,” it says.
It is illegal to import, possess or drink alcohol. Same for illegal drugs. And the penalty for drug trafficking is death.
The kingdom’s cultural and religious laws go far beyond drugs and alcohol. You can’t criticize Islam, its religious figures or the royal family. You can’t practice any religion other than Islam. You can’t display the sacred symbols of other religions.
It is famous for its subjugation of women. While during the past few years there have been protest movements to give women at least some of the rights that those in Western societies take for granted, there is still a “guardianship” system that prohibits women from getting a passport or traveling without the permission of a male relative.
Women are severely limited in how much they can drive a car – if they’re allowed to drive at all. They are not allowed to wear clothes or makeup that would “show off their beauty.” They can’t swim in public pools or compete freely in sports.
Same-sex relations are illegal. Even expressing public support for them could be punished by fines, prison or death.
And Trump, while he was given a lavish reception, wasn’t allowed to do what he claimed he would be doing – “visiting many of the holiest places in the three Abrahamic faiths.”
In Israel, he was allowed to pray at the Western Wall. He was welcomed to the Vatican by the Pope, even though each has been harshly critical of the other.
But in Saudi Arabia he was not allowed to visit Mecca and Medina because he is not a Muslim. He is, in the words of their holy book, an “unclean … idolater.” For some reason, the Saudis never seem to worry that using such pejorative terms will be “needlessly provocative.”
In the even-a-blind-squirrel-occasionally-finds-a-nut category, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had it right when, following Trump’s visit, he sarcastically referred in a tweet to Saudi Arabia as “that bastion of democracy & moderation.”
Or, as conservative columnist Cal Thomas put it, enlisting the Saudis to fight terrorism and extremists “is akin to forging an alliance with the Ku Klux Klan to combat racism and anti-Semitism.”
Yes, it is sometimes necessary and worthwhile to forge alliances with odious governments, if those alliances can eliminate a greater evil. If this one can keep Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check, that would be worthwhile.
But to say, as the president did, that we share “common values” with Saudi Arabia is a stretch – a major stretch. And it sends a troubling message – that Trump is OK with a tyrannical regime as long as the two countries have a couple of shared goals.
The president, in his speech, said the conflict in the Middle East is not “between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
The Saudi monarchs may be allies of necessity. But, as leaders of a government that beheaded 153 people last year, they hardly meet the definition of “decent people … who seek to protect (human life).”
Perhaps this was not the time or place for Trump to say something nasty about his “gracious” hosts. But, regarding their values, he shouldn’t have said anything nice, either. It would have been better to say nothing at all.