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Trump softens tone on Islam but calls for purge of ‘foot soldiers of evil’

President Donald Trump invoked the Boston Marathon bombings Sunday in his speech on terrorism to leaders from around the Middle East.
President Donald Trump invoked the Boston Marathon bombings Sunday in his speech on terrorism to leaders from around the Middle East.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Trump on Sunday pivoted away from his strident assessment of Islam as a religion of hatred as he sought to redefine US leadership in the Mideast and rally the Muslim world to join him in a renewed campaign against extremism.

Addressing more than 50 leaders from across the Muslim world who had gathered in Saudi Arabia, Trump rejected the idea that the fight against terrorism was a struggle among religions, and he promised not to scold them about human rights in their countries.

But he challenged Muslim leaders to step up their efforts to counter a “wicked ideology” and purge the “foot soldiers of evil” from their societies.

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“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump said in a cavernous hall filled with heads of state eager to find favor with the new president.

“This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion, people that want to protect life and want to protect their religion. This is a battle between good and evil.”

Trump said the battle should be fought by “decent people” of all religions. He said the United States is willing to help in the effort, but he added that it would be mainly up to Muslims themselves to purge their societies of extremists.

“Drive them out,” he said. “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.”

While Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, to different degrees, had promoted human rights and democracy to undercut support for radicalism, Trump made it clear he did not plan to publicly pressure Muslim nations to ease their repressive policies.

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“We are not here to lecture,” he said. “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.”

But Trump also used his speech to denounce Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying he committed ‘‘unspeakable crimes’’ during the country’s civil war, with help from Iran. He also said the Iranian people have ‘‘endured hardship and despair under their leaders’ reckless pursuit of conflict and terror.’’

The president’s overall tone in Saudi Arabia was a far cry from his incendiary language on the campaign trail last year, when he said that “Islam hates us” and called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States.

Throughout his visit here, a less volatile president emerged, disciplined and on message in a way he is often not at home. He did not brag about his electoral victory and avoided tangents. With few exceptions, he stuck to his teleprompter. His mood has been sober and careful.

President Trump, speaking in Saudi Arabia, urged Muslim nations to drive away the “foot soldiers of evil.”
President Trump, speaking in Saudi Arabia, urged Muslim nations to drive away the “foot soldiers of evil.”Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

By refusing to hold news conferences or answer questions during brief photo opportunities, Trump orchestrated a sense of diplomatic calm that contrasted sharply with the chaos that usually surrounds him in Washington. He has not used Twitter as a cudgel against adversaries since his overseas trip began.

In his speech Sunday, he made no mention of the executive orders he signed after taking office barring visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries.

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Instead, he described Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” and called for “tolerance and respect for each other.”

While in the past, Trump repeatedly criticized Obama and others for not using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” his staff sought to ensure that he would not use it before this Muslim audience.

The final draft of the speech had him embracing a subtle but significant switch, using the term “Islamist extremism.” Islamist is often defined to mean someone who advocates Islamic fundamentalism.

When that moment in the speech came, however, Trump used both words. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds,” he said. An aide said afterward that the president went off script unintentionally.

If the speech during the second day of a nine-day overseas trip was intended as a sort of reset from his campaign and early presidency, it was also meant to turn away from Obama’s approach. Rather than preach about human rights or democracy, Trump said he wanted “partners, not perfection.”

Trump received a warm welcome in the room as Muslim leaders put behind them the messages of the campaign and the attempted travel bans, and some leaders turned to flattery.

“You are a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible,” President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt told him.

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

Some activists in the United States gave the president mixed reviews. “While President Trump’s address today in Saudi Arabia appears to be an attempt to set a new and more productive tone in relations with the Muslim world, one speech cannot outweigh years of anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals,” said Nihad Awad, head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

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Trump’s decision not to mention human rights in any of the meetings drew bipartisan criticism back in Washington.

“It’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy and freedom and human rights,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, called it “a terrible abdication of our global leadership.”

The speech was meant as a centerpiece of Trump’s two-day stay here before he heads to Jerusalem early Monday, and it was part of a larger drive to plant the United States firmly in the camp of Sunni Arab nations and Israel in their confrontation with Shi’ite-led Iran.

To firm up such a coalition, he spent hours meeting individually with leaders from Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, then with larger groups.

Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia headed to a meeting with regional leaders Sunday in Riyadh. Melania Trump walked behind them.
Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia headed to a meeting with regional leaders Sunday in Riyadh. Melania Trump walked behind them. SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/EPA