President Trump, like his predecessors before him, has discovered the potent language of religious tolerance and interfaith unity when discussing Islam, as he demonstrated in his speech in Saudi Arabia to leaders of some 50 Muslim nations. But unlike previous presidents, he has not linked that rhetoric with recognition of the large, vibrant Muslim community in the United States.
As a historian who has studied efforts in the past to build acceptance of religious pluralism in the United States, I am concerned by Trump’s departure from historical precedent.
Can a message of tolerance to Islam abroad be persuasive without a corresponding affirmation of American Muslims at home?
In his widely anticipated remarks on Islam and terrorism, Trump avoided many of the missteps his critics feared. He notably abandoned the harsh rhetoric that characterized descriptions of Islam during his 2016 campaign. Trump has set aside his insistence on the use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” He has also rejected the broad generalizations of Islam that marked his demand for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration because their hatred was “beyond comprehension.”
With the exception of one apparent reference to “Islamic terror” — present in his spoken words but not in the written text of the speech — Trump struck a tolerant, inclusive tone. In his declaration that he was “not here to lecture” was the promise that the United States would not tell others “how to worship.”
More notable than the language of tolerance was Trump’s new emphasis on interfaith commonality. He declared the campaign against terrorism not “a battle between different faiths” but rather a fight that encompassed them all. He noted that a terrorist who “falsely invokes the name of God” should be considered “an insult to every person of faith.”