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Encouraging, but lacking

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp
May 22, 2017

US President Donald Trump has given his long-anticipated speech on Islam and terrorism in Riyadh. His words were appropriate and relevant, says Kersten Knipp - but he also swept crucial issues under the rug.

US-Präsident Trump in Saudi-Arabien
Image: picture alliance /dpa/Saudi Press Agency

On his better days, Donald Trump is a master of the moment.

During his rallies in the 2016 election campaign, for example, when he called on people to MAGA ("Make America Great Again"), and a few weeks after inauguration when he gave a somewhat conciliatory speech, he found a tone that, although bombastic, was also dignified, and made a good impression on his audience - at least for the duration of those speeches.

The effect, however, was of limited duration, because his earlier speeches had shown us a different Trump. One who had drawn attention with far less generous sentiments - sentiments at odds with the magnanimity he subsequently professed.

We have now seen something similar with his highly anticipated keynote speech on Islam. The setting was impressive: the political lords of the Arab world, the men who tell their respective Middle Eastern peoples what's what, were all assembled in Riyadh. But unlike former President Barack Obama's speech in 2009 in front of students at the University of Cairo, the people themselves were not represented.

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App
DW's Kersten Knipp

The art of politeness

Addressing the gathering in Riyadh, Trump said much that was correct, although once again his conciliatory tone was strangely at odds with his earlier actions, such as his attempt to ban all citizens from six Islamic countries from entering the United States. During the debate about the travel ban earlier this year, Trump used a very different tone to the one he switched to in Riyadh.

There, he showed generosity. The current violence in the Middle East was "not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations." Rather, it was "a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it."

Trump's assurance that the US was "not here to tell other people how to live, what to do […] or how to worship" was also constructive. And the call on those in authority in the Arab world to take their own action against Islamic extremists was expressed in a polite, and therefore suitable, tone.


Nonetheless, the speech left a sense of unease because it didn't fit with other comments Trump had made just a day earlier, on the same trip.

When he announced the arms deal with Saudi Arabia - worth $110 billion (around 98 billion euros) - he spoke of the "beautiful military equipment" and the "great security" these weapons would guarantee.

For the people of Yemen, on whom Saudi Arabia is currently inflicting an aerial war as brutal as it is cowardly, this must sound like mockery.

And what must Egyptians think, whose government is increasingly jettisoning human rights standards - and whose security Trump praised on his trip as "very strong"? As if the political, economic and constitutional deficiencies on which jihadism in Egypt thrives simply did not exist.

Unease about the unsaid

The speech also revealed the dark flip side of the way Trump enthusiastically abandons himself to the moment. The president is so fixated on the here and now that he all too seldom thinks of other aspects.

The difficult human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's sometimes exaggerated panic about Iran - these are all issues that, to put it politely, do little to contribute to "great security."

Most of what Trump said in his speech about Islam was appropriate and understandable. It is therefore all the more difficult to understand why he simply swept decisive issues under the carpet. The speech was encouraging, but it's unlikely to achieve the expected results.

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East