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Trump’s speech draws mixed reaction, including plenty of anger, in the Muslim world

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President Trump speaks during the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

Even before Jordan’s King Abdullah II took the microphone, moments after President Trump had finished his address at the summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reactions were already flooding social media.

“Bravo President Trump,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, who described the speech as “effective and historic” and “defining [an] approach towards extremism and terrorism with candid respect and friendship.”

“America’s role reaffirmed,” he concluded in another tweet.

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That view was echoed by Dubai’s head of general security, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, a controversial figure who came out in support of Trump’s attempt to temporarily ban travel to the United States from six predominantly Muslim countries.

He tweeted, approvingly, that Iran — which was a major target of Trump’s speech — “is outside the Islamic world’s matrix in the Riyadh Summit…. When you isolate yourself from the world you are isolated.”

But many Muslims, especially those outside the Persian Gulf states, were less enthusiastic.

Hussein Salama, a 29-year-old Egyptian aid worker in Cairo, criticized Trump for failing to acknowledge the role Saudi Arabia played, wittingly or not, in the creation of extremist groups such as Al Qaeda.

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“The problem with this approach is that it totally disregards the fact that Saudi Arabia has provided the ideological structure upon which these organizations stand,” Salama said in an interview.

He accused the United States of “throwing money at its oil-rich ally and relying on Saudi Arabia to play a role in resolving regional crises without realizing that Saudi Arabia has played a role in creating these crises in the first place.”

The speech also elicited a condemnation from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which holds sway over the Gaza Strip. In a statement by spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, the Islamist group labeled the speech a “slander against the reputation of the resistance of the [Palestinian] people.”

In his address, Trump lumped Hamas together with Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah as terrorist groups.

“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,” Trump had exhorted Muslim leaders gathered at the summit.

Barhoum criticized Trump for showing “total bias to the Zionist occupation,” in a reference to Israel. He added that Hamas was a “nationalist liberation movement.”

Trump’s hard line against Iran, which came two days after a landmark election that cemented President Hassan Rouhani’s reformist agenda, was seen by some Iranians as a slap in the face.

“Just when Iranians voted overwhelmingly for openness and engagement with [the] world, Trump clenched his fist and responded by calling for Iran’s isolation. It raises the question as to whether the United States wants to lose Iran as an enemy,” said Iranian academic and author Trita Parsi in an email statement Sunday.

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“Combining isolation with a call for regime change — ironically after the Iranians went and massively participated in their presidential elections — is how the groundwork for the Iraq war was laid,” Parsi cautioned.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, sent out a wry tweet saying that “Iran — fresh from real elections — [was] attacked by @POTUS in that bastion of democracy & moderation” — a sarcastic reference to Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy whose rulers have forged an uneasy alliance with hard-line clerics who espouse a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Zarif also suggested that Trump’s primary interest was in arms sales and other deals with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that he valued at $480 billion. It was unclear how Zarif arrived at that figure. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Saudi Arabia has agreed to long-term deals collectively valued at more than $350 billion.

Hamid Reza Taraghi, an analyst close to the office of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, viewed Trump’s moves as a way “to sell weapons and [do] business.”

Amir Kavian, a 53-year-old publisher in the Iranian capital, Tehran, agreed.

“This is good for America…. They make a fortune from the catastrophe in the Middle East,” he said in a phone interview.

He added that the outcome of the presidential election demonstrated that “Iran is ready to compromise.”

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In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged a devastating war against the Houthi rebels who have taken control of the government, thousands took to the streets of the capital, Sana, to protest against Trump’s visit to Riyadh. The president’s speech did little to mollify them.

“The most disgusting part of the entire speech, Trump praises #Saudi actions in #Yemen. A war KILLED high number of civilians,” tweeted Fares Said, a journalist with the Yemen Al-Yawm newspaper.

The two-year conflict in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people. The majority of the deaths have been blamed on a Saudi-led air campaign to which the U.S. has provided logistical support and weapons.

Last year, mounting civilian casualties in the country pushed the Obama administration to suspend the sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Trump reversed the order.

Many in the region were also dismayed by the arms deal that Trump touted in his speech.

Jordanian lawyer Gandhi Amin, in a post on his Facebook page titled “Why I Am Sad,” listed alternative uses for some of the money, such as ending a cholera epidemic sweeping Yemen or creating a refugee center for all Syrians displaced by war.

The arms deal was also criticized by some American Muslim groups.

“Historically, arms trade results in more fighting, more wars, and more extremism,” said Salaam Bhatti, a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, in a phone interview Sunday.

“While we applaud the president for saying that Muslims are the victims of 95% of terrorism, rather than the arms trade, we ask that nations improve education and invest in proven models for peace.”

American Muslim groups reacted with caution, applauding Trump’s conciliatory tone even while condemning some of his administration’s policies, such as its attempt to enact a temporary travel ban against six majority-Muslim countries.

“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 — including an attempt to enact a Muslim ban by executive order, which his administration continues to defend in court,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in a statement Sunday.

“We welcome President Trump’s recognition of Islam as ‘one of the world’s great faiths,’ but that recognition does not wipe out years of well-documented anti-Islam animus,” Awad added. “New policies and concrete actions — not mere rhetoric — are what is needed to reset relations with the Muslim world.”

Bulos is a special correspondent. Special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Omar Medhat in Cairo and Times staff writer Jaweed Kaleem in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Twitter:@nabihbulos


UPDATES:

2:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional comments.

This article was originally posted at 11 a.m.


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