Co-authored by Zaki Barzinji, Senior Policy Advisor of the Muslim Public Affairs Council
This weekend, President Trump crossed the ocean to deliver a message meant for Muslims around the world. If he’s serious about turning a new leaf, he should start in his own backyard.
Nowhere on the planet will you find a more diverse and representative population of Muslims than in the United States. Muslims have been a part of this nation’s fabric since before its founding. We are as diverse in language, race, culture, and socioeconomic status as our country itself. In terms of national origin, we are a majority minority population, with African-Americans representing the single largest group of believers.
And yet, President Trump has decided to deliver his speech in Saudi Arabia, one of the most homogenous, ideologically rigid, and socially repressive countries imaginable. By choosing Saudi, either by intention or not, he is sending a message to the world that they are the best representatives of the billion and a half adherents of Islam. His actions also serve as an endorsement that Saudi’s interpretation of Islam, which declares itself the only brand worth following, is the one Americans back home should also consider the gold standard. And without a hint of irony, by partnering with the Kingdom to “promote a moderate view of Islam and combat extremism”, while continuing to marginalize and alienate Muslims back home, President Trump will dramatically exasperate and only undermine his own stated goals.
Saudi Arabia does not speak for American Muslims, and President Trump does not speak to us either.
Though Saudi has made marginal attempts in recent years to moderate its image and enact more progressive social policies (with the bar set so abysmally low), it is hardly a paragon of virtue. Its track record on women’s rights and treatment of religious and ethnic minorities fly in the face of the true Islamic values of defending human rights of society’s most vulnerable and establishing a clear separation of church and state to protect religious liberty for all. Saudi Arabia does not speak for American Muslims, and President Trump does not speak to us either.
Here in the United States, the only engagement we’ve seen thus far from the Trump administration has been xenophobic rhetoric, discriminatory policies that tear Muslim families apart, and the active nurturing of a new environment where bigots feel free to commit hate crimes against our community in record numbers.
In 2015, during the most toxic campaign season in recent memory, hate crimes against Muslims rose by a staggering 67%. The FBI’s numbers for last year haven’t been released yet, but every estimate indicates an even greater spike. And that’s just from what little data actually gets reported. In a joint advocacy effort with Emgage USA last month, MPAC joined with the ADL and Senators Kamala Harris and Marco Rubio to pass a Senate resolution condemning the spike in hate crimes and calling on the Department of Justice to improve its scattershot collection of hate crime reporting from law enforcement agencies nationwide. Our message was clear: anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same bigoted coin, and both Jews and Muslims have seen an unprecedented wave of attacks against our communities. If President Trump is serious about building bridges with the Muslim community, actually addressing this scourge would be a pretty good place to start.
Furthermore, the notion that Saudi Arabia should be the first partner to turn to in the fight against radicalization and extremism is laughable at best and deeply disturbing at worst. Muslim communities in the United States have been leading the way in amplifying authentic, positive narratives that directly combat the type of binary worldview foreign groups like ISIS try to promote. Often, and perhaps most effectively, this is done without involvement of the federal government. We firmly believe it should stay that way but, at the same time, the administration and Congress would do well to acknowledge the work our leaders do on a daily basis to promote a pluralistic -and ultimately more authentic- embodiment of our faith. Instead, the Muslim community is far too often singled out for suspicion, alienation, and a questioning of our loyalty. President Trump may know something about this after spending years trying to question the religion and national origin of our previous President.
By choosing Saudi Arabia as the platform for his overture to Muslims, President Trump will do nothing to heal these wounds within his own nation.
By choosing Saudi Arabia as the platform for his overture to Muslims, President Trump will do nothing to heal these wounds within his own nation. Instead, he will only further cement the idea that Islam is foreign, that the “Muslim world” is fundamentally different and alien to our own nation and the bedrock principles upon which it was founded. Trump’s message is still being delivered in a way that reinforces the idea that it’s a partnership of strangers who share little in common. This, ultimately, is the very same narrative ISIS itself feeds on and, incidentally, the one that the alt-right also relishes in promoting. Both ISIS and Islamophobes want you to believe that Muslims cannot exist or lead meaningful lives in the West, and here in the US in particular.
And so we say again to our President: Don’t fly across the world to build bridges. The work must start at home.