On Islam, Trump Takes a Different Approach at Home and Abroad
Posted June 13, 2018 9:07 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — The White House’s guest list last week for President Donald Trump’s first dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan included a who’s who of diplomats from the Middle East. But the event turned out to be more notable for who apparently was not there: representatives from Muslim American groups.
The night highlighted a paradox of Trump’s presidency. While he has sought to ally himself with Middle Eastern leaders, in part by at times softening his hostile tone on Islam, at home Trump has seemingly made little attempt to repair his fractured relationship with Muslim Americans — even those in his own party.
Saba Ahmed, the president of the Republican Muslim Coalition and a Trump supporter, said that at the outset of the presidency, there was a “complete shutdown of engagement” with Muslim Americans.
“It was quite a challenge” to work with Trump’s campaign staff, Ahmed said. “Even for the Republican Muslims who campaigned for him and helped him.”
The reinstatement of the dinner, which has been hosted by three previous presidents, and the departures of some staff members with hard-line views on Islam have left her optimistic that the White House will grant more access to its Muslim supporters.
“They have tarnished the image of Islam and Muslims, but I do think he is concerned about American Muslims,” Ahmed said. “The fact that he’s coming around, that he hosted the dinner, gives me a lot of hope.”
Activists outside the Republican Party do not share that hope.
“There is absolutely zero engagement with the Muslim American community,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Not good, not bad, not indifferent. Zero.” Everything he has said and done, Hooper said, “has had a tremendously negative impact on Muslim Americans.”
Trump has provided evangelicals with unprecedented access to the Oval Office, meeting regularly with a cadre of conservative Christians for issue-specific “listening sessions.” And although his meetings with faith leaders skew heavily toward Christians, they have been sprinkled with phone calls and holiday celebrations with members of the Hindu and Jewish American communities.
But according to his public schedule, the president has yet to meet with any Muslim American groups. Another hitch came last year when Trump upended a decades-old tradition by not hosting a gathering for iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan.
But the snub at this year’s iftar dinner was “a double-edged sword,” Hooper said.
“I don’t know a lot of Muslim American leaders who would have even wanted to attend,” he said. “But to have absolutely no Muslim American leaders invited? It’s a real slap in the face.”
The dinner tradition was started in 1996 by Hillary Clinton, the first lady at the time, and continued by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The attendees have historically included Cabinet members and diplomats, but also members of advocacy groups and the public, according to a review of published guest lists.
Past presidents have also used the dinner to highlight noteworthy Muslim Americans. Bush made a point in 2006 of inviting Muslim military veterans and New York City police officers who were serving on Sept. 11, 2001, and Obama sought to emphasize women and young leaders by seating them at his table in 2015.
The White House has not made this year’s guest list public and did not respond to requests for comment.Among those in attendance were at least a dozen Middle Eastern ambassadors, including from countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to pool reports.
The relationship had begun to fray well before last week’s dinner. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently lobbed vitriolic remarks about Muslims. “I think Islam hates us,” he declared in an interview with CNN, and more than once he made unfounded claims that “thousands and thousands” of Arab-Americans in New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11.
Once Trump took office, one of his first acts was signing an executive order barring people from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. And he has appointed officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, whose remarks about Islam and ties to anti-Islam groups have raised concern among Muslims.
Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, said her nonprofit used to “believe in engagement as a tool” and worked with the Obama administration on civil rights issues. When Trump was elected, Khera hoped to continue that tradition, and accepted a meeting with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration.
Khera said she thought it was important to meet with Kushner “to have the opportunity to determine to what degree the hateful rhetoric used on the campaign trail was bluster.”
A couple of weeks later, she said, the travel ban was rolled out.
“It became abundantly clear that this was his agenda,” she said. “Our posture now has really moved; our form of engagement now is really filing lawsuits.”
Despite his track record at home, however, Trump has shifted in the eyes of some Middle Eastern royalty to ally from antagonist. And in March, he called the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia “probably the strongest it’s ever been.”
The president has also publicly praised Islam abroad. Last year in Saudi Arabia, at a summit of dozens of Muslim leaders, he retreated from his incendiary language and called Islam “one of the world’s great faiths.”
Speaking before Middle Eastern diplomats at last week’s iftar gathering, Trump reiterated that statement and focused on the summit meeting, calling it “one of the great two days of my life” and giving thanks for the “renewed bonds of friendship and cooperation.” The remarks were less than convincing for American Muslims.
“What the president does is motivated in his self-interest,” Khera said. “He believes he motivates his base by demonizing Muslims, and when it comes to a foreign audience, especially in the gulf, he’s looking to curry favor with these power brokers. He’s a transactional person.”
Although the president has tried to rally Middle Eastern leaders to join him in combating terrorism and extreme ideology, according to experts, engaging Muslims in the United States is just as crucial as mounting an effective counterterrorism campaign.
Trump’s actions “negatively impact the view toward Muslims in the United States, and it creates a situation where future generations might feel alienated or targeted,” said Ali Soufan, a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and a former FBI agent. “In Europe, in some communities, Muslims feel they are second-class citizens, and it’s these young kids who are questioning their identity who can become radicals and join ISIS.” Soufan said that while Trump’s inflammatory remarks cater to his base, more caution is needed “not to bring cancer into the United States.”
But for some activists, it is too little, too late. Maha Elgenaidi, the executive director of the Islamic Networks Group, a cultural literacy nonprofit, cast doubt on the likelihood that Trump could repair his relationship with Muslim Americans.
“It’s not going to be easy to shift because many of the policies they’ve acted on have been based on religious profiling and are supported by evangelicals, his base,” she said. “I don’t think that’s going to be easily changed.”
Hooper, the Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman, said that for the community to sit at the table with Trump, it would take a complete repudiation of anti-Muslim remarks, policies and staff members he had appointed.
“You’ll find that every Muslim American leader wants to have a good relationship with any sitting president,” Hooper said. “But how is that possible when all of these negative forces are out there?”