In Speech, Trump to Declare Terrorism a ‘Battle Between Good and Evil’

The New York Times | By PETER BAKER and MICHAEL D. SHEARMAY 21, 2017


President Trump with the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, in a meeting with Arab Gulf leaders on Sunday in Saudi Arabia. CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Trump planned in a centerpiece speech on Sunday to rally leaders from around the Muslim world in a renewed campaign against extremism, rejecting the idea that the fight is a battle between religions even as he has promised not to chastise them about human rights violations in their own countries.

Mr. Trump, who during last year’s presidential campaign said he thought that “Islam hates us” and proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, will sound different themes, according to prepared text of the speech. While declaring terrorism to be a “battle between good and evil,” he planned to say that it should be fought by “decent people of all religions.”

The White House released advance excerpts from the speech on the second day of Mr. Trump’s inaugural trip overseas as president. His team intended the speech to be the centerpiece of his stop here in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where he was meeting with Arab leaders and convening a larger gathering of Muslim leaders.

In effect, the speech was meant as a reset from the harsher tone and policies Mr. Trump adopted as a candidate last year and in the early days of his presidency.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Mr. Trump says, according to the speech excerpts. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”

While he has criticized President Barack Obama and others for not using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” Mr. Trump avoids the phrase in the speech excerpts, instead embracing a subtle but significant switch, using the phrase “Islamist extremism.” Some experts say the word Islamist reflects extremists without tarring the entire religion.

“That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires,” Mr. Trump says in the excerpts. “And it means standing together against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews and the slaughter of Christians.”

But he says that Muslim leaders must do more to confront extremism in their midst.

“The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” he says. “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries and for their children.”

The United States, for its part, will “make decisions based on real-world outcomes, not inflexible ideology,” and “whenever possible, we will seek gradual reforms, not sudden intervention,” he adds.

While Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush in different ways and to different degrees had promoted human rights and democracy as tactics to undercut support for radicalism, Mr. Trump made clear he did not plan to publicly pressure Muslim nations to ease their repressive policies.

“We are not here to lecture,” he says, according to the excerpts. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

Whether Mr. Trump will ultimately use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in the speech was unclear. Aides released only part of the text, the president has a tendency to go off-script in public addresses.

But in recent days, aides have suggested that he would pivot from the serrated-edged language of his presidential campaign. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, who has pushed Mr. Trump to stop using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” hinted that the president may not use it in the speech.

“The president will call it whatever he wants to call it,” General McMaster said in an interview with “This Week” to be broadcast on ABC News. “But I think it’s important that, whatever we call it, we recognize that these are not religious people and, in fact, these enemies of all civilizations, what they want to do is to cloak their criminal behavior under this false idea of some kind of religious war.”

General McMaster’s framing of the issue was closer in spirit to the way Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama defined it than the way Mr. Trump did as a candidate. Both of his predecessors argued that terrorists had perverted Islam, which they described as essentially a religion of peace.

During last year’s campaign, Mr. Obama dismissed Mr. Trump’s use of the phrase as “yapping” that would “fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion,” thus “doing the terrorists’ work for them.”

Mr. Trump at that time refused to back down, saying that “anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country.” He used the phrase again in his inaugural address in January. Even after General McMaster told his national security staff that the phrase was problematic and should not be used, the president defiantly cited it again days later in an address to a joint session of Congress, a move seen as a rebuke of his own national security adviser.

Still, General McMaster said Mr. Trump has been listening to the Muslim leaders he has been meeting since becoming president and understands their views better. “This is learning,” he said on ABC.

Mr. Trump signed executive orders shortly after taking office to temporarily ban visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries, but those orders were blocked by the courts. While his administration is appealing, the president has made little mention of them lately. The page on his campaign site calling for the “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration has been taken down.

Some advisers who advocated stronger action and language about what they call the Islamic threat have either left the administration or have faded in influence: Michael T. Flynn was fired as national security adviser for other reasons, while Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and Sebastian Gorka, a White House aide, are said to have less sway.

The Trump administration and Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday that they would create a joint Terrorist Financing Targeting Center to formalize longstanding cooperation and search for new ways to cut off sources of money for radical groups. Mr. Trump also planned to tour the new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh.

Mr. Trump’s speech will cap a frenetic, whirlwind day of diplomacy. He was meeting individually with the leaders of four Arab states — Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Qatar — and then collectively with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He will then gather with dozens of leaders from around the Muslim world. (A meeting with Oman’s deputy prime minister was canceled without explanation.)

Arab leaders who had soured on Mr. Obama after eight years, complaining that he lectured them without taking a decisive enough leadership role in the region, were enthusiastic about Mr. Trump’s arrival despite his past comments about their religion.

Mr. Trump met first with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, a largely Shiite country led by a Sunni monarchy. The tiny island nation, which serves as home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has taken harsh measures in recent years to contain a persistent unrest.

Mr. Trump told the king that it was “a great honor to be with you” and that there “has been a little strain but there won’t be strain with this administration.” He added that the two countries have “many of the same things in common.”

In March, the country’s Parliament approved a constitutional change allowing military courts to try civilians, a decision that human rights activists called a move toward martial law.

Not only did the Trump administration not object publicly; it also signaled shortly afterward that it would lift all human rights conditions on a major sale of F-16 fighter jets and other arms to Bahrain.

Mr. Trump has argued that private entreaties will be more effective than public promotion of human rights, pointing to the recent release of an Egyptian-American aid worker from Egypt after he hosted that country’s strongman president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, at the White House. Mr. Trump thanked Mr. Sisi for that on Sunday during their meeting in Riyadh and said he hoped to visit Egypt soon.

In response, Mr. Sisi was effusive in his praise of the American president: “You are a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.”

“I agree!” Mr. Trump responded cheerily, as laughter rolled through the room.

Mr. Trump emphasized security ties in his meetings. “One of the things that we will discuss is the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment because nobody makes it like the United States,” he told the emir of Qatar. “And for us, that means jobs and it also means, frankly, great security back here, which we want.”

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