President Trump used to revel in his frequent and forceful use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism” in describing extremist groups in the Middle East and South Asia.
Then he went to Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ strongest allies in the Middle East.
The phrase that once separated him from his political opponents and most of Washington was absent in his speech Saturday and was replaced with “Islamist extremism” and “Islamists.”
The toned-down language indicates an “enormously significant” departure from a rhetoric often heard during the presidential campaign, said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. Trump had gone from an outsider candidate who used a phrase that broadly denounces the Muslim faith to a president who seemed to be learning that in areas of diplomacy, nuances matter.
“It’s certainly providing needed clarity in precisely who the enemy is,” Hoffman said. “There is nothing like going to a region to understand the culture and the importance of rhetoric. Whether it was something he just learned or not, the fact is that going to the region brought into sharp focus and underscored the criticality that words matter.”
It also shows a conscious effort from the Trump administration to move away from the phrase, said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“That’s positive in the sense that it’s a product of internal deliberations about how to best approach the issue,” he said.
The difference between “radical Islamic terrorism” and “Islamist extremism” is stark, experts say.
“Islamic” refers to the Muslim faith as a whole, and placing it in front of a word, like “terrorism,” could be interpreted as saying something about the broader religion.
“Islamist” carries a specific connotation and is characteristic of the fanatical extremists and violent fringes, such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
“It is a political ideology that strives to derive legitimacy from Islam,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. “It can be described as an ‘anti-‘ ideology, in the sense that it defines itself only in opposition to things. That is, Islamism stands not for but against.”
Hoffman said the change in language is likely because of the influence from Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, whom Hoffman described as a pragmatist with deep knowledge of the Middle East.
“He understands the importance of these distinctions,” Hoffman said.
McMaster and other top aides had been previously unsuccessful in persuading Trump to abandon the broad label. McMaster said it does not help the United States in working with its allies to defeat extremist groups, according to CNN.
Before Trump’s visit to Riyadh, speculation abounded on whether he would use “radical Islamic terrorism” in his speech, which is the focal point of his trip. But Trump, instead, abandoned his “Islam hates us” rhetoric and delivered “a message of friendship and hope and love.” He struck a unifying tone against terrorism, drawing distinctions between the Islamic faith and terrorist groups.
A few highlights of his speech:
This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion
Drive them out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. And drive them out of this earth.
Of course, there is still much work to be done. That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds. (In here, Trump slightly veered off script and said “Islamic” instead of “Islamist.” A senior White House official told The Washington Post that Trump simply misspoke because he was “exhausted.”)
Read the entire speech here.
As recently as a month ago, however, Trump was singing a different tune.
In an Associated Press interview in which he was asked about far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, he said: “I believe whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism and whoever is toughest at the borders will do well at the election.”
In February, when federal judges blocked the enforcement of Trump’s controversial executive order banning citizens from some Muslim countries from coming to the United States, he tweeted: “The threat from radical Islamic terrorism is very real, just look at what is happening in Europe and the Middle-East. Courts must act fast!”
He also used the phrase in his inauguration speech and in his address to a joint session of Congress. As a candidate, Trump repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. They won’t even mention it, he often said on the campaign trail, where supporters cheered him for vowing to defeat and protect the United States from “radical Islamic terrorism.”
The change in rhetoric also underscores Trump’s shift from being a private citizen, who spent years bashing Saudi Arabia for getting “freebies” and not using its vast wealth to pay the United States accordingly for its “help and protection.” This past weekend, he’s a president whom the Saudis dazzled with a grand welcome in an effort to rekindle the relationship between two countries tied together by common interests.
Saudi Arabia has remained a strategic ally for past administrations, despite the kingdom’s record of human rights violations. As president, Trump’s previous criticisms have taken a back seat.
Hamid, of the Brookings Institution, said it’s too soon to tell whether Trump is permanently departing from his old rhetoric, or simply appealing to an audience. Speaking in front of Muslim leaders who consider broad denunciations of their faith offensive is different from speaking to a crowd of supporters in Pennsylvania or Indiana.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what he says in the future,” Hamid said.
That Trump slipped by using “Islamic” instead of “Islamist” also suggests a few other possibilities.
“It could’ve just been that he’s used to saying ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Or he himself may not be aware of the distinction,” Hamid said.
Or, as what reporters were told, it was a simple mistake brought by exhaustion.
Philip Rucker and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.