On his trip to Saudi Arabia this week, President Trump talked a lot about religious violence. But he never uttered one of his favorite phrases: “radical Islamic terrorism.” The omission sparked chatter about why he dropped the term and whether this portended a policy shift in the Middle East. On those questions, let’s wait and see. But Trump’s switch does clarify one thing: Presidents who refuse to associate Islam with terrorism aren’t being stupid. They’re being prudent.
As a presidential candidate, Trump claimed that when President Obama and Hillary Clinton avoided language about Islamic violence, they weren’t just being cowardly or dishonest. He suggested that they didn’t use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” because they didn’t understand the connection between terrorism and its religious context. Clinton “has no clue what radical Islam is,” Trump asserted after last year’s terror attack in Orlando. “She is in total denial … When it comes to radical Islamic terrorism, ignorance is not bliss—it’s deadly.” Several of Trump’s Republican presidential rivals—Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum—agreed that Obama and Clinton didn’t get it.
Other Republicans disagreed. Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Lindsey Graham shared Trump’s distaste for Obama’s and Clinton’s policies. But these Republicans said it was wise to distinguish Islam from terror. “Presidents can’t just say anything they want. It has consequences, here and around the world,” Rubio explained during a primary debate. “We’re going to have to work with the Jordanian kingdom. We’re going to have to work with the Saudis. We’re going to have to work with the Gulf kingdoms. We’re going to have to work with the Egyptians … We are going to have to work with people of the Muslim faith, even as Islam itself faces a serious crisis within it of radicalization.”
That’s exactly how Obama and Clinton explained their thinking. They saw how much murder was being committed in Islam’s name. They refused to echo that language, precisely because they understood that the goal of Muslim terrorists was to persuade other Muslims that Islam sanctioned terrorism. But this line of thinking by Obama and Clinton was lost on—or ignored by—conservative pundits and politicians. During the campaign, friends of mine seriously asked whether Obama understood the relationship between Islam and terrorism.
Thanks to Trump’s Middle Eastern trip, I no longer have to defend Obama’s judgment. I can point instead to Trump. He has come around, in effect, to Obama’s position. Speaking in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, Trump replaced his previous talk of “radical Islamic terrorism” with Obama-esque denunciations of “extremism” and “violent ideology.” “This is not a battle between different faiths,” said Trump. He noted that by some estimates, “more than 95 percent of the victims of terrorism are themselves Muslim.”
Trump’s reversal wasn’t just a matter of politeness while visiting a Muslim country. Two days later, he stood next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Netanyahu called on America and Israel to “defeat the forces of militant Islam.” Trump, despite the previous day’s terror attack in Manchester, eschewed such language. Like Clinton and Obama, Trump spoke of Muslims as partners: “I call upon all people—Jews, Christians, Muslims, and every faith, every tribe, every creed—to draw inspiration from this ancient city, to set aside our sectarian differences, to overcome oppression and hatred, and to give all children the freedom and hope and dignity written into our souls.”
Why did Trump talk this way? For the same reason Obama and Clinton did. In an interview previewing the trip, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster signaled that one of the administration’s goals was to thwart terrorists who invoked the name of Islam. McMaster called them “irreligious criminals who use a perverted interpretation of religion to advance their criminal and political agendas.” Trump, in his remarks on the Manchester attack, called the perpetrators “losers,” explaining: “I won’t call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name.” It’s hard to believe that this rationale—refusing to call terrorists what they want to be called—didn’t play a role, as well, in Trump’s newfound unwillingness to describe them as Islamic.
Trump hasn’t suddenly become wise, decent, or enlightened. If he thinks that railing against “radical Islamic terrorism” will help him politically, he’ll go right back to it. But his decision to drop such language—at least as a strategic gesture to Muslim governments—shows that he understands why it’s smart to avoid speaking that way, or that McMaster has convinced him for now. So let’s stop pretending that presidents who avoid associating terrorism with Islam are being naïve. Because now, when Republicans say that, the president they’re calling naïve is Trump.