What Donald Trump Got Right In His Riyadh Speech

Obviously, I have some disagreements with what Donald Trump said in his Riyadh speech.

Talking about Iran as if it’s the primary culprit responsible for Islamic terrorism — while praising Saudi Arabia, terrorism’s chief financier and home to both Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers — is disingenuous. Textbooks that glorify jihad, martyrdom, and fighting Jews and infidels are taught to Saudi schoolchildren to this day.

Moreover, saying that terrorists “don’t worship God, they worship death,” is the same kind of deadly, self-deluding rhetoric that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even George W. Bush peddled for years. Of course terrorists worship God — in fact, they do so with stronger faith and more piety than most other religious people. They don’t look at death as an end to be mourned like we do; they look at it as a transition to a better place, which is exactly what religion teaches. (To understand how this plays out in reality, read about the conversation I had with a Taliban supporter defending the murder of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan.)

Aside from these points and a few others, however, Trump delivered a good speech.

He openly referred to “Islamic terror,” “Islamists,” and “Islamic extremism.” This is even more honest than his preferred phrase, “radical Islamic terrorism.” Jihadists aren’t “radical.” They’re fundamentalists who adhere to the teachings and holy scriptures of their religion closely, which is what religions in general and Islam specifically (the word Islam means “submission”) ask of their followers. Many of my fellow liberals dislike the term “Islamic terror,” but in my view, as someone who grew up in Riyadh in a Muslim family, honesty should never be sacrificed for appeasement.

Talking about Iran as if it’s the primary culprit responsible for Islamic terrorism… is disingenuous.

Trump also differentiated between jihadist ideology and the Muslim people. He said he wanted “young Muslim boys and girls” to grow up with security and without fear. He asked his audience of Muslim leaders to “stand together” with him “against the murder of innocent Muslims.” And, like Obama, he condemned the Iranian regime while also expressing solidarity with the largely Muslim people of Iran, praising their culture and history, and rightly acknowledging that they are their regime’s “longest-suffering victims,” who have “endured hardship and despair” under their fundamentalist leaders.

This speech was an obvious, complete reversal for the Donald Trump who once wanted a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States a little over a year ago. It was more measured, moderate, and may even hold appeal for moderate and liberal Muslims in the Muslim world, if (and that’s a big “if”) they can dismiss Trump’s bigoted statements about Muslims in the past. A growing number of Muslims today dowant Western leaders to speak honestly about the extreme Islamic fundamentalist ideology that Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of, while not holding all of them responsible. Trump did not make this distinction before, but he seems to have at least touched on it in his speech. Ideas should be challenged, but people should not be demonized. “Islam” and “Muslims” are not synonymous.

Now, I am not a Trump supporter, and considering his past rhetoric, it may be too late for those who watched his speech to see him as credible. Moreover, the political undertones of Trump’s speech shouldn’t be lost on anyone. His choice to align with Sunni powers (Saudi Arabia) over Shia (Iran) is in line with America’s economic interests and Israel’s de facto alliance with the Saudis and other Sunni powers against Iran. This might seem like a pragmatic strategy temporarily, but could be devastating in the long term. I also know that Trump’s future — as a president who is at war with the American media, independent judiciary, and his own intelligence agencies — is anything but certain. I listened to his Riyadh speech, as I have many of his other reversals, with skepticism.

That said, we should give credit where it’s due.

We have had very little honest discourse on Islam. The left frequently regards any criticism of Islam to be bigotry against all Muslims. And the right frequently demonizes all Muslims because of problematic aspects of the religion. Both sides conflate criticizing ideas with demonizing people. But this speech — for all its flaws and oversights and the speaker’s questionable credibility — got closer to striking the right balance than many of us would like to admit.

If it’s received well, it could serve as an example to future Western leaders that one need not make a choice between challenging violent Islamic ideology and showing compassion and respect for Muslims.

What Chris Cornell Did for this Pakistani Kid in Saudi Arabia

It was late one winter night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when everyone else in the house was asleep, that I first heard the otherworldly, almost superhuman voice of Chris Cornell.

It was 1989, and I was fourteen.

I was watching a VHS videotape that I’d asked a friend to record music videos on while he visited family in New York. Of course, this is before the Internet, before MP3s, and well before YouTube and online streaming. This was at a time when we had to wait weeks to get our hands and ears on the latest music coming out of America. And music videos were a different story altogether. There were only two local Saudi TV channels—one Arabic, one English—and access to satellite or foreign channels was restricted for most of us. So it was really rare and really exciting to actually be able to watch the artists—whose voices and words you lived and felt and laughed and cried to—perform their craft.

My friend managed to squeeze 6 hours of MTV’s Headbangers Ball into the two-hour videocassette I’d given him, using a VCR setting called extended play. I waited anxiously until my dad got home, and we went to his house to pick it up. I brought it back, popped it into the VCR, and devoured it all in one go, watching and listening, late into the night, long after everyone else had gone to bed.

At the end of the six-hour metal marathon was a song by a band I’d never heard of.

It started with a slow, dark, ear-piercing riff constructed entirely out of feedback. Then, it came. That unreal voice, rising from the din of feedback, beautiful, demonically hypnotic, shaking your bones. I haven’t heard anything like it to this day. The song was “Loud Love.” The band, Soundgarden.

And then, two minutes into the video, the tape ended. I rewound it just to make sure. I popped it out and checked again. And again. But that was it. It was the end of the tape. I was desperate to hear the rest of the song. There were no rock music magazines available anywhere near me, none of my friends had heard of the band, and there was no Google to Google anything with.

Years later, I would go to my cousin’s house, and he would show me this wonder called the Internet. He would load up Yahoo’s search engine and say, “Ali, what do you want to know about? Type anything, anything you want, and it’ll find it for you.” And I would type in Chris Cornell. My first ever Internet search.

But back then, I didn’t have Google or Yahoo. All I had were those two minutes at the end of the tape, which I watched over and over again. I also took a tape recorder, held it in front of the TV speaker, and recorded it so I could play it in my Walkman headphones before going to bed.

It was that year that I moved to Pakistan to continue high school while my family stayed in Riyadh. American music was easier to get in Pakistan than Saudi, and I did manage to find some magazines with short articles about Soundgarden. But apart from that, even there, no one had heard of band. The album wasn’t available anywhere. Again, all I had were those two minutes of “Loud Love.”

Finally, in the spring of 1990, I got some great news. Another cousin from England was coming to visit us in Pakistan that summer. I wrote to her, asking if she would please get me the Soundgarden album. I sealed the envelope, rode my bike to the post office, and mailed the letter. She replied quickly (which means I got her letter about three weeks later) and said she would. About a week before her visit, she went to both Tower Records and HMV in London. No one there had heard of Soundgarden, and neither store had Louder Than Love in stock. But she asked them to order it for her, and picked it up a few days later. When she finally arrived in Pakistan, she handed me the tape.

“Loud Love” was the first song on Side B. I had to fast-forward to the end of Side A to get to it. Finally, I listened to the song from beginning to end, savoring every note. It’s hard to explain to young people today who can access any band or album they want online how exhilarating and euphoric it is to finally get your hands on a record you’ve been waiting months and months for. I was in love. I locked myself in my room. I closed my eyes and listened to the entire album. Then, I opened up the cover and followed along with the lyrics. And I listened to it again. And again. I still listen to it today. I have every lyric on that album memorized.

Those who know me personally have heard me say repeatedly, for decades now, that Chris Cornell is the single best singer who ever lived. Chris’s voice and music has been an integral part of my life in a way I can’t explain. What his voice does to me is what a potent drug might do for someone else. It’s beyond just a melody or a song. It isn’t constrained by the dimensions of any familiar format. It’s unbridled abandon—it’s carefree, wild, raw, animalistic. Chris Cornell is the only man whose songs I’ve listened to or sung at least every week since I was a teenager. My own band does very few covers, but when we do, it’s often a Chris Cornell song. Just last week, I sang “When I’m Down”to my seven-month-old daughter at bedtime. His melodies seem to have the same effect on her.

Less than two years after I first got hooked on those magical two minutes at the end of that Headbangers Ball tape, Soundgarden exploded into the mainstream with their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains as part of the Seattle grunge scene. Now, everyone knew them. Their albums were available at every record store. They transformed the music scene. They won Grammys. Johnny Cash covered “Rusty Cage.” Chris recorded the haunting, beautiful-beyond-words Euphoria Morning. And then, he did it all again with Audioslave.

I never met Chris Cornell, but like millions of his fans, I grew up with him and loved him deeply. There was something about his voice—it wasn’t just music to be listened to. It was helplessly, transcendently felt. It was intimate and transformative in a way that’s inexplicable. I don’t know what made him choose to end it all, but knowing what I knew of him through his art, I understand.

I wish I could have done for Chris what he did for me. Today, though, I’m that 14-year-old kid again. Desperate for more, but the song’s been cut too soon.

“And I’m lost


The words I’ll never find.”

— Chris Cornell, “Seasons”

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

‘Atheist Muslims’ could be the key to defeating Islamic terror

I was raised in three Muslim majority countries — Libya, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — and arrived in North America in my mid-20s. Two years after I settled in Canada, September 11 happened. Nineteen hijackers acting in the name of my parents’ religion — 15 from a country I grew up in — flew fuel-laden airliners into the World Trade Center, killing thousands.

From the ashes, two opposing narratives began to emerge, as it happens with most issues in the US: one on the right, and one on the left.

And today, in a nation more divided than ever after a rancorous election season, the differences couldn’t be more stark.

The right is clear: We’re at war with Islamic terrorists. They started it, and we must respond. We know the common denominator here, so enough with the political correctness — we must keep our country safe, and if that means profiling Muslims, restricting Muslim immigration or even “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” as President-elect Donald Trump proposed last year, so be it.

No, says the left. We need to be nuanced. Read through our history. Islamists are simply responding to America’s atrocities around the world. We’re the imperialists who colonized them, held them down under the boot of the military-industrial complex and built our civilization at their expense. We must look at the underlying grievances and root causes driving this. The “biggest terrorist operation that exists,” according to uber-leftist hero Noam Chomsky, is actually the one being run by Obama.

Both of these narratives miss the mark. One assumes that Muslims are inherently violent because Islam is inherently violent. The other paints the act of criticizing Islam as bigotry against all Muslims.

The key distinction both sides miss is that Islam is an idea. Muslims are people.

Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect; ideas, books and beliefs don’t and aren’t. No belief is sacred, but our right to believe what we want is.

Not making this distinction leads the far right to demonize all Muslims because of the problems in Islam, and the far left to completely ignore legitimate problems with Islam in an effort to defend Muslims. The result? One side calling for a ban on Muslims and the other pretending Islamic terrorism doesn’t exist.


I’m a liberal atheist who grew up as part of a Muslim family. I’m not alone. Recent polls reveal millions of secular agnostics and atheists in the Muslim world, though you probably won’t hear about them unless they’re being flogged in prison, executed by the state, or murdered by a mob. A WIN/Gallup poll found that 19 percent of people in Saudi Arabia — the historical birthplace of Islam and Muhammad — identify as “non-religious”; for perspective, that number is 15 percent in Italy. The same poll shows that 5 percent of Saudis — over a million people — identify as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the US.

Secularists in the Muslim world are growing fast and targeted viciously within their communities. Make no mistake, these freethinking dissidents — fighting to bring universal values like free expression, liberty and equality to their people — are not shy about criticizing Islam. They are putting their lives on the line to do this, and many have died for it. They are your most dedicated allies.

But when you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.

After Trump announced his Muslim ban, Fareed Zakaria, one of the world’s most respected American journalists, felt he had to embrace his Muslim identity. “I am not a practicing Muslim,” he wrote. “My wife is Christian, and we have not raised our children as Muslims. My views on faith are complicated — somewhere between deism and agnosticism. I am completely secular in my outlook.”

Why embrace the Muslim label then?

When you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.

“As I watch the way in which Republican candidates are dividing Americans, I realize that it’s important to acknowledge the religion into which I was born,” he continued. “I am appalled by Donald Trump’s bigotry and demagoguery not because I am a Muslim but because I am an American.”

Do we really want to force well-integrated, patriotic American Muslims like Zakaria back into tribal categories under a President Trump?

The greatest thing about America is that it empowers people to rise above their birth identities. This is certainly true of American Muslims. Look at Muhammad Ali. Or Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, who brought us the voices of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. Or comedian Dave Chappelle. Or actor Aziz Ansari, who is avowedly secular but was incensed at Trump for unfairly targeting Muslims like his parents.

Reducing their identity to just “Muslim” doesn’t help successful, hard-working Muslim-Americans rise above it. It throws them back, categorizing, ghettoizing, and tribalizing them. It alienates those who would otherwise be allies.

We should be able to criticize any doctrinal idea openly while also standing up for the right of people to believe in them. The left’s failure to honestly address the Islamism problem from a position of moral strength has left a void that the Trumpian right has opportunistically — and successfully — exploited in a very divisive way, alienating reformist dissidents in the Muslim world who feel betrayed by liberals and conservatives alike. Today — more than ever — those fighting for freedom there need the support of those who love freedom here.

Originally published on The New York Post.

The One Thing All Winning Presidential Candidates Have in Common

Liberals: “Bigot!” “Racist!” “Islamophobe!”

Conservatives: “Condescending!” “Arrogant!” “Insulting!”

These are not arguments. Don’t let them dissuade you. We should be speaking truthfully about both the fatal toxicity of Islamism and its apologists, and the breathtaking ignorance of Trumpism and its defenders.

Most of you are not politicians, and you’re not looking for votes. So be honest, and don’t be afraid of being called labels, or being accused of arrogance. Don’t be shamed into silence. Honesty trumps (for lack of a better word) all of that in the long run.

The left will tell you they lost because the country is full of racists and bigots. The right will tell you they won because the left ignored white working class voters who lost their manufacturing jobs. They’re both partly right, and largely wrong.

The reality, I think, is more analogous to the aging rich executive dating a young, attractive supermodel thirty years younger and claiming it has nothing to do with her looks, but her IQ and how well they connect as a couple.

In almost every US election — ever — the candidate with more charisma has won.

Liberals were being accused of being “elitist” and “condescending” both times Obama won, and he was promoting essentially the same policies that Hillary Clinton was this time. But Obama won in electoral landslides both times. Obama still has a higher approval rating than Reagan did in his last year of office.

Obama had infinitely more charisma than both John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012. The one time Obama actually slipped behind McCain in the polls in 2008 was when Sarah Palin (another very charismatic candidate) was selected as McCain’s running mate.

Look through history. You’ll see it time and time again — especially since presidential debates first started being televised — that this is the one common denominator. In fact, the first ever televised debate, between a charming, smooth-talking John F. Kennedy and a sweaty, uncomfortable Richard Nixon, is widely credited for ringing the death knell on Nixon’s 1960 campaign.

At the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the United States had seen eight full years of peace and prosperity. It would’ve made sense for Al Gore, his vice president, to be elected to continue that success. But it didn’t happen. While George W. Bush wasn’t as charismatic as Clinton or Reagan, his mischievous charm towered over Gore’s robotic drone in 2000, and Kerry’s cerebral, professorlike monotone in 2004.

Go back and look anywhere. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Walter Mondale were a match for Ronald Reagan, the actor and orator who hypnotized Republicans and Democrats alike with his inveterate charm and wit, winning 49 of 50 states in 1984. Bill Clinton was known for being able to connect with his voters one-to-one as if they were friends, a skill that helped him beat out the otherwise graceful George H. W. Bush in 1992, who could not defeat him as he did the bland, clinical Michael Dukakis four years earlier. And Bob Dole, the war hero, was no competition for the charismatic Bill, widely reputed as a draft dodger.

You could dismiss this article as spurious or superficial, but then you’d have to explain to me how else a man who switched his positions on everything from month to month if not minute to minute, who lied incessantly about much more than just his emails, and who was more secretive and evasive about his tax returns than Hillary Clinton was about pretty much anything else, pulled off such a stunning victory — not just in the Republican primary (which some of us actually did see coming), but also in the general election (which most of us didn’t).

The fact is — and this is the one thing people on both sides knew — Donald Trump, for all his crassness and vulgarity, is a very, very charismatic man.

He has drawn millions to his bustling rallies, broken ratings records for every debate he has participated in, and played the media industry with almost unprecedented prowess.

No one in his own party could match him in the primary season. And there is now a good argument to make that the one candidate in the other party who came closest, Bernie Sanders — also a very charismatic man — may have fared better than Clinton. Clinton did win the popular vote, but not by enough of a margin to stop Trump taking the electoral college. Would Sanders have done better in the Rust Belt as he did against Clinton in the primaries? Going by the way things turned out, probably yes.

When charisma comes into play, ideology doesn’t matter. Policy details don’t matter. Experience doesn’t matter. A born-again (so he says) Republican who railed against the Iraq War, went to war with Republican icons like the Bush family and John McCain, battled a Republican institution like Fox News, took positions on trade that no Republican would otherwise risk, won over a vast majority of evangelicals despite being socially liberal for most of his life and not even knowing how to say “2 Corinthians,” and praised Planned Parenthood smack in the middle of a Republican primary debate, is now president. And a Jewish atheist socialist who no one ever thought would be taken seriously as a candidate came within a heartbeat of the Democratic nomination.

For 2020, the Democrats need a populist candidate who is seen as authentic and can fight aggressively and lead not just a party, but a movement, as both Trump and Bernie did this past year. That candidate, at the moment, is Elizabeth Warren.

Elizabeth Warren can hold her own against Trump. She is immensely charismatic. She has no baggage dating back decades. She has experience working with Republicans. She campaigned for Hillary and is adored by Bernie supporters, inspiring excitement in both factions of the party and bringing them together. She is idealistic like Bernie, yet also pragmatic like Hillary. And she is on record as being able to land a decent punch or two, with thick enough skin to shake off whatever comes her way.

Whether you agree with her ideas or not is immaterial. How many mainstream Republicans agreed with Trump’s ideas, or mainstream Democrats with Bernie’s? It didn’t matter. Most people agree that if Obama had run for a third term, he would’ve won, despite an agenda almost identical to Clinton’s. People prefer the better storyteller to the person with the better policies. This is why religion is so successful. How else would talking snakes and virgin births be more convincing to grown, educated adults (including the current vice president-elect) than observable phenomena like evolution?

When things don’t make sense, and when millions of people are left scratching their heads, wondering, “How did this happen?” it helps to zoom out, go back to the basics, and look at the common denominator. And there is one characteristic common to the most massively influential people in human history, from Muhammad and Martin Luther King, Jr., to Winston Churchill and even Hitler: Charisma.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Iowa’s Real Winners Are Sanders and Rubio —

Historically, the few days between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are notoriously misleading because of what Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls the focusing effect, defined by Wikipedia as “a cognitive bias that occurs when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event, causing an error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.” At this stage in the U.S. election season, we tend to think Iowa is the be-all and end-all of everything, until New Hampshire rolls around and changes everything.

This is especially true when it comes to the Republicans. By winning Iowa, Ted Cruz has now joined the ranks of previous (non-)titans like Rick Santorum (Iowa winner, 2012) and Mike Huckabee (Iowa winner, 2008). Remember them? As you may have picked up from that, an Iowa win doesn’t really mean much for the GOP. Iowa’s Republicans are disproportionately evangelical-heavy, favoring the most religiously conservative candidate. So, in a sense, it actually would’ve been more shocking if Cruz had lost Iowa.

But that in no way means Iowa is completely inconsequential. To catch a glimpse of this crystal ball, you really have to look deep behind the numbers. Here are three major insights from Iowa 2016:

1. Much Ado About Rubio. Rubio is now a serious contender — you’ve all heard this by now. His strong third (almost second) place showing is much more significant than Cruz’s win. So yes, watch the entire Republican establishment rush to get behind Rubio in the coming days. But will it help? Probably not enough. As significant as the rise of Rubio is, this is still the year of the anti-establishment candidates. Together, Cruz, Trump and Carson got over 60 percent of the Iowa vote and polled very well leading in. This number itself is much more important than Trump’s loss. Despite Trump’s second-place showing, his brand — described early on by Morning Joe‘s Willie Geist as “a giant middle finger to the political process” — won resoundingly. Considering that Cruz is unlikely to have any pull beyond Iowa (and maybe South Carolina), this still bodes very well for Trump. Don’t count him out just yet.

2. Bernie Can Really Win. He wildly exceeded expectations while Hillary, despite winning by her razor-thin margin, fell short of hers. At this point, the expectations game is everything (this is what made Trump a loser in second place and Rubio a winner in third place). Effectively, that makes Bernie the real winner in Iowa. Bernie is trouncing Hillary 63-30 in New Hampshire according to the latest UMass Lowell/7News poll, so Hillary now has an enormous challenge ahead of her. She’s still the best bet to get the nomination in the end, but it’s far from the certainty that it once was.

3. Anyone-But-Trump Liberals Should Proceed With Care. As brash and infuriating as Trump may seem, his proposals, believe it or not, are much more moderate than Cruz, or even Rubio. Unlike Trump, who has held several liberal positions in the past (he was pro-choice, pro-single payer healthcare, and even praised Hillary Clinton as little as four years ago), Cruz is a Tea Party extremist and likely to stay that way. On abortion, both Cruz and Rubio oppose exceptions for rape or incest, unlike Trump. Unless you’re okay with either of these guys appointing the next couple of Supreme Court justices, it may be a little misplaced to celebrate Trump’s loss in Iowa just yet.

That said, Democrats should probably hope for Cruz to win the nomination, because that pretty much guarantees a President Hillary Clinton (or, less likely, Sanders). Cruz is too far-right to be able to beat Hillary. But either Trump or Rubio could conceivably beat her: Trump has a talent for getting to know his audience and giving them exactly what they want, so he’s more likely to pivot to the center in the general election; and Rubio is now the establishment favorite who will have obscene amounts of money supporting his bid. In the liberal nightmare scenario where one of them does beat Hillary Clinton, Trump is definitely the lesser evil.

As of today, Trump is 22 points ahead of Cruz in New Hampshire, according to the RealClearPolitics average. (While it’s true that the polls didn’t really deliver in Iowa, not all of them were too far off: the most recent polls from Opinion Savvy and Emerson did show Trump, Cruz, and Rubio in a statistical dead heat.) When it comes to political terrain, New Hampshire and Iowa may as well be different planets. So it’s hard to imagine a lead that large evaporating entirely within a week. But this is 2016, and stranger things have happened.

Both sides now have a two-person race, each with an establishment candidate and an outsider. On the left, it’s Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders. On the right, it’s Marco Rubio vs. Donald Trump. Cruz’s win, while it did shake things up, is a distraction. He can reliably placed in the previous-Iowa-winners bin with Santorum and Huckabee.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

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