PRESIDENT Donald Trump does not delve much into religion in his speeches in the United States, except to slam adherents of Islam. But during his past week’s jaunt to the Middle East and Europe to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there was much to do with religion that needed attention.
The political adage was apt: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Shouting reckless words to rally supporters while campaigning last year was one thing; it’s different now he’s in the power seat.
His speech in Saudi Arabia – the site of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest places – was significantly more moderate than his campaign references to that country, when he said it wants “women as slaves and to kill gays” and was behind the terror attacks of 9/11. Even though it has indeed been a major terrorism sponsor, his speech’s thrust was clearly about deal-making, with scant reference to human rights.
Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with 1,6 billion adherents, or 23 per cent of the planet’s 6,9 billion people. Christianity is the largest, with 2,2 billion adherents, nearly a third of the global population.
Trump was careful not to insult Islam. During his aggressive campaign he repeatedly and pointedly used the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ – which his predecessor Barack Obama refused to use – to describe Middle Eastern extremist groups, but while in Saudi Arabia he replaced it with ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘Islamists’, terms which are more ‘politically correct’.
The Saudis were receptive. Even his wife Melania, who stood out prominently at his side with uncovered hair in starkly ‘western’ dress that Saudi women are forbidden to wear, seemed naturally part of the proceedings.
The Saudi royal family’s red-carpet reception for him with parades and horses, elevated him to a dignity he entirely lacks in Washington. When he very publically signed the gigantic $110 billion arms deal with the Arab state, his stature rose even higher.
Then on Monday, when he jetted into tiny Israel, predictably intense political arguments raged among his hosts, unlike in Riyadh which presented a totally united front. Israel is, after all, a noisy democracy with divisions vociferously expressed, contrary to Saudi Arabia.
It seemed out of character when this narcissistic man known for his crude, abusive comments donned a kippa on Monday and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall – the kotel – a holy site for the relatively minuscule 14-million Jewish global population, who constitute only 0,2 per cent of the world’s people. Yet his Israel visit carried as much significance – in some ways more – as his other stops.
Trump brags he will make the ultimate deal to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is unlikely he understands the complexities. While symbolism such as visiting the kotel is important, he is short on substance.
Jerusalem, for example, with 883,000 residents – 37 per cent of them Arabs – is a key emotive element for all sides which has stymied previous agreements. Jews and Palestinians – and the Arab world – both want to control major parts and will not yield. Its Jewish population is becoming increasingly religious and their political clout grows rapidly towards the right, less disposed to concessions for peace. Disputes about sovereignty over the Western Wall precinct is one example.
Among Jerusalem’s Jewish residents over age 20, some 35 per cent are ultra-Orthodox, and rising. About 66 per cent of Jewish students in the city attend ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. The ultra-Orthodox birth rate is more than double the national average.
These complexities are matched by the Palestinian Muslim population.
Trump’s foray into Islam’s and Judaism’s heartlands is powerful public relations, shifting attention from his political problems in Washington. But the Mideast is a minefield which his bragging cannot paper over. Can he stay the long course?