Trump and Muslim leaders — the work begins now

Baria Alamuddin 

The presence of heads of state from 55 Muslim-majority countries for the Riyadh Summit represents a unique opportunity to confront the challenges facing the region. Such an event would never have been possible in any other location. It is a testament to the respect Saudi Arabia enjoys to have brought together leaders from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Arab world.

Perhaps more astonishing is that at the center of this event stands US President Donald Trump, who over the course of last year, through his words and actions, came to be seen as the anti-Muslim election candidate. Who would have believed that his first overseas trip as president would be to the land of Islam’s holiest sites, addressing Muslim leaders about the need for unity and common cause?

Never has it been truer that power brings responsibility. Trump has come to realize that many of the foremost US priorities depend on the Muslim world: Fighting terrorism, containing Iran, enhancing regional stability and encouraging trade on terms favorable to everyone. As a businessman, he has an instinct for where his and US interests lie, so his first presidential travel brought him to Riyadh.

The $110 billion defense deal is good news for American workers, and is necessary for guaranteeing the UN-enshrined right of all states to have the tools to defend themselves.

Listening to Trump’s speech, we are hearing a new, more humble president, willing to listen and acknowledge that “America First” means the West and the Arab world standing shoulder to shoulder to address common priorities. Hearing him discuss calls by Muslim intellectuals for peace and moderation is proof that we can all change our views and learn from others.

Yet it pains us all that one proud Muslim nation is defined by its absence. Iran should be one of the states sitting at the top table. Instead, not only was it compelled to stay away, but much time has been consumed debating how best to confront the theocrats of Tehran and the harm they have done in more countries than we would care to mention.

At a moment when Daesh is close to being crushed in Mosul, the region is confronted with proxy Iranian militias that rival Daesh in their brutality and their potential to undermine regional stability. Trump did not mince his words in decrying the terrorism emanating from Tehran. But beyond the rhetoric and naming and shaming, we need tangible measures to demonstrate to Iran’s leaders that their actions bring down unaffordable consequences on their own heads.

This is said in sorrow rather than anger, because the Iranian people should not be seen as enemies. The fact that that the vast majority of Iranians voted for the man they believed to be the most moderate choice on the ballot paper last week proves their desire for a renewed relationship with the Muslim world — if only their leaders would allow.

We heard a new, more humble president, willing to listen and acknowledge that ‘America First’ means the West and the Arab world standing shoulder to shoulder to address common priorities. Who would have believed that his first overseas trip as president would be to the land of Islam’s holiest sites?

Baria Alamuddin

The sight of more than 50 Muslim leaders standing together should force Iran to pause for thought and acknowledge the fundamentally mistaken path it has embarked on, bringing the weakness of isolation rather than the strength that arises from unity.

Many Muslim leaders arrived at this conference with the weight of the world on their shoulders: Famines and epidemics across central Africa, state collapse and scarcity of resources in Yemen, and difficulties arising from hosting millions of refugees.

Trump says he wants to do more to confront terrorism and instability. His presence at the Riyadh Summit unites him with those leaderships doing most to address extremism, militancy and the multiple challenges facing us all. On the issues that matter, the vast majority of the world speaks with one voice.

Radicalization is not a Muslim problem, and Trump is coming to realize that while extremists may have grown up in the slums of Cairo or Algiers, they may just as easily have been born and bred in the US, with all the advantages that this confers. We begin addressing these challenges when we stop blaming other nations and acknowledge that we are all partners in confronting this scourge.

As Trump travels to Jerusalem, he will have the voices of Muslim leaders ringing in his ears about the necessity of a just solution to the Palestinian issue. He must strongly emphasize to Israel that the denial of Muslim rights will only leave it weaker and more marginal in the region. We may not feel optimistic about peace, but that does not reduce our desire to see this achieved.

Trump will have seen that Saudi Arabia represents the beating heart of the Muslim world. When Muslims turn to pray toward Makkah, this is not an accident of history, but rather the glue that binds them together. By cultivating close ties with the Kingdom, Trump has set US foreign policy in the direction of a strong working relationship with all Muslim states striving for peace and unity.

The Arab world has been weak because it is divided. These events are an opportunity to shake hands, take photos and exchange pleasantries. But the region cannot afford to miss the opportunity to convert words and promises into tangible action. When the Muslim world genuinely stands together, its enemies will never find the tiniest opportunity to sow discord. The work begins now.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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