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.

‘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.

Guns, Terrorism, and Honesty

Which of the following statements would you say you agree with?

Pick as many as you like. My answer is at the bottom.

1. Better gun control is essential to curb gun violence.

2. Islamic jihadism is a dangerous ideology that must be fought.

3. Guns should not be banned or confiscated.

4. Muslims should not be harassed or discriminated against just because they’re Muslim.

5. We should aggressively criticize and even satirize the problematic aspects of Islam (the religion), as we would with any other religion or political ideology.

6. Day-to-day gun violence is more deadly than Islamic terrorism right now because it has killed many more people.

7. Islamic terrorism is more deadly than day-to-day gun violence, because if it actually succeeds in its stated goals (such as obtaining weapons of mass destruction as ISIS wants to do), it will kill millions more.

8. Anyone who kills innocents to advance a religious/political agenda is a terrorist — this could include Muslims, far-right Christian abortion clinic bombers, radical leftists from the 1960s, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.

9. Islamic terrorism is the most deadly form of terrorism in the world today.

10. Anyone who is mentally disturbed or disgruntled and shoots up his school or workplace is a criminal, but is not a terrorist — even if he’s Muslim.

11. All Islamic terrorists are Muslim.

12. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and should not have to apologize for the few that are.

13. The few Muslims that do commit terrorist acts do so in complete accordance with a plausible, legitimate interpretation of the Islamic religion.

14. Islamic jihadists are motivated by many legitimate grievances like US foreign policy and the nagging remnants of Western imperialism.

15. Islamic jihadists are motivated by Islamic doctrine, the words of the Quran and hadith, and the promise of an afterlife, eternally, in Paradise.

16. Islamic imperialism (whether the 7th century Arab kind or the Ottoman kind) has done just as much harm (if not more) to the world than Western imperialism.

My answer:

All of them.

None of these points contradict each other. Go ahead and read through them again.

Gun violence, Islamic terrorism, and anti-Muslim bigotry are all real, serious problems that need to be faced head-on. It’s disingenuous to be in denial about one or the other just because you have a certain political affiliation. These don’t have to be conservative or liberal issues. Don’t make them be.

#Solidarity with the victims and their families in San Bernardino.

#ExMuslimBecause: Thousands of Former Muslims Are Speaking Out After Paris —

Where are all the secular liberals in the Muslim world?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question. The answer is both unsurprising and heartbreaking. In Muslim-majority countries, they are often being lashed and imprisoned for blogging, hacked to death in open daylight, or sentenced to death for writing poetry. Here in the West, they are often being disowned from their families, ostracized from their communities, and even murdered by their own families in “honor killings.”

As for those who choose to leave the religion altogether, the outcome is even more sinister. There are thirteen countries, all Muslim-majority, where atheism is punishable by death. And Saudi Arabia — the birthplace of Islam, its Prophet, and the location of its two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina — has declared that all atheists are terrorists. Remember, this is also the home country of not only Osama bin Laden, but fifteen of the nineteen hijackers from 9/11.

When simply changing one’s mind comes at such a high cost, it isn’t surprising that you don’t hear much from secularists, atheists, or agnostics in the Muslim world.

But this last Thursday, that changed. Maryam Namazie‘s Council of Ex-Muslims of Britainstarted the #ExMuslimBecause campaign last week, encouraging dissidents from across the Muslim world to come out and say why they left Islam.

The response was tremendous. By early Friday morning, #ExMuslimBecause was the U.K.’s top trending hashtag. We heard from secret LGBT Saudis; women who had been forced into marriages; closeted atheists in Egypt and Pakistan tweeting under pseudonyms; young women disowned by their families in the U.S.; and more.

I’ve compiled some of the most popular tweets below. Some come from a purely rational place, and others are understandably angry — which is relatable if you think of what so many ex-Muslims go through. There are also tweets from Muslims who did not take this trend too well, as well as those who were supportive. What you’ll see below is the often unheard, third side to the international conversation we have been witnessing since the Paris attacks — a conversation that represents an increasingly reverberating alternative narrative that is developing across the Muslim world, where atheism is on the rise. While some of it may seem shocking, it is important and should be read by everyone who wants to understand narratives from the Muslim world otherwise all too often silenced before reaching us.

A few points to keep in mind as you read further:

1. Being part of Muslim families and communities, ex-Muslims not only receive the same bigoted treatment as other Muslims, but are also persecuted (often severely) by Muslims who consider them heretics and apostates.

2. Ex-Muslims often find themselves caught between the anti-Muslim bigotry of the far right that demonizes all Muslims, and the apologism of the far left that conflates any legitimate criticism of Islam with “bigotry” or “Islamophobia” — à la Ben Affleck’s tantrumon Bill Maher’s show last year. Criticizing Islam (an idea) and demonizing Muslims (a people) are very different things.

3. Many ex-Muslims feel betrayed by their liberal counterparts in the West. The fight against Islamic jihad should come from a position of moral strength, not xenophobic bigotry. This is a fight that liberals should take on themselves before it’s hijacked by the far right.

Here are some of the tweets:






Some Muslims weren’t happy with the trend:

But other Muslims were very supportive:

And some non-Muslims who had also left their religions showed solidarity:

If you are an ex-Muslim with a story, you can participate by:

Tweeting the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain: @CEMB_Forum
Messaging the council on Facebook:
Emailing or

If you’re in North America, you can also contact these other great organizations:

Muslimish (for questioning and ex-Muslims):
Ex-Muslims of North America:

And if you’re an ex-Muslim in a Muslim-majority country, you can get your story out there by contacting, an organization that puts dissidents in oppressive countries in touch with international journalists, writers, lawyers, government officials, and more.

The next time you hear someone speaking as if they represent all Muslims in their view of the faith, remember that their voice isn’t the only one.

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 file photo, members of the Austrian Greens protest against the punishment for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi in front of the KAICIID in Vienna, Austria. Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court upheld a verdict against a liberal blogger who was flogged in January after being found guilty of insulting Islam and breaking technology laws, state-linked news websites reported Sunday, June 7. (AP Photo/Hans Punz, File)

Here’s Why Blogger Raif Badawi Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

“If anyone hurts one’s feelings, he will be punished by the law,” said Inspector General of Police Shahidul Haque last month, addressing free speech advocates at a press conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “None should cross the limit.”

Haque’s colleagues came under fierce criticism from protesters for their inaction after blogger Niloy Neel, 40, was brutally hacked to death by men armed with machetes. Neel was found beheaded in his home, with his hands cut off. Shortly before his death, he had filed a report with the police saying he was being followed and threatened. The police did nothing.

It should have, argue the protesters. Niloy Neel was the fourth blogger to be hacked to death in Bangladesh in just six months. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in broad daylight while walking to work. In March, it was blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu. In February, it was American writer Avijit Roy, murdered as he and his wife walked back from a speaking engagement at Dhaka University.

It has been an extraordinarily successful year for opponents of free speech. The year 2014 ended with movie theaters caving to North Korean threats, forcing Sony to pull the movie The Interview. On January 7, Islamists massacred 11 people in the Charlie Hebdoattack. Two days after that, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly lashed 50 times outside a mosque in Jeddah, as a crowd yelled “Allahu Akbar.” The next six months saw the killing of the four Bangladeshi bloggers. And three Al Jazeera English journalists, including a Canadian and an Australian, remain jailed in Egypt.

The Dhaka police chief’s response to the bloggers’ killings — that they should watch what they write — was unsurprisingly repugnant.

But before being shocked, recall how everyone from Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau to 145 members of PEN — who protested the group’s honoring of Charlie Hebdowith its freedom of expression courage award — submitted their own “I condemn the murders, but…” statements. Remember how, even here in the West, much of the discussion around The Interview revolved around the content of the movie, how appropriate it is to show a sitting head of state being assassinated on film, and other concerns that are completely and utterly irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Now, Bangladesh is officially a secular country that has finally started rounding up some of the Islamist murderers who claimed responsibility for the attacks. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, are a different matter. In these countries, it is the government itself that kills you for thinking differently.

Last year, Iran executed Mohsen Amir-Aslani for insulting Jonah and “making innovations in religion.” Soheil Arabi is still imprisoned for his Facebook posts. And Jason Rezaian, an American correspondent for The Washington Post, remains in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison on charges of espionage and “propaganda against the establishment.”

Rezaian’s brother, Ali, hopes that the new Iran deal will help the U.S.-Iran relationship and improve the chances of Jason being released and returning to his family. I hope he’s right.

But the release of Rezaian and three other American political prisoners in Iran wasn’t even on the negotiating table in Geneva. President Obama, known to be a realist on international relations, has explained why bringing up the issue could have weakened the United States’ negotiating position and compromised the deal.

And so, as four Americans remain imprisoned in Iran with their government unable to do much to get them out — what hope is there for everyone else?

When Fareed Zakaria asked the president in January if he would bring up the case of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi with Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, Obama’s response was measured:

“What I’ve found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done. And oftentimes that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated. Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”

Last week, for King Salman’s first visit to Obama’s White House, his entourage bought outthe entire Four Seasons hotel for the weekend, brought in crates of gold furniture — gold mirrors, lamps, hat racks — and laid out red carpets everywhere, even in the parking garage.

A lot has happened since their last meeting. The Saudi government, which hasn’t taken in any Syrian refugees, has banned the adoption of Syrian children. Over 100 people have been executed by beheading or firing squad for crimes that include apostasy, heresy, and even sorcery. And Raif Badawi’s prison sentence of 10 years and 1000 lashes has been upheld by the country’s highest court.

But none of these issues came up for discussion last week. The purpose of the meeting was to allay the Saudis’ fears about the Iran deal, and this was a success. The United States again let the Saudis know it has their back.

Last year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head for standing up to the Taliban. 2010 recipient Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for standing up to the Chinese government. 2003 recipient Shirin Ebadi was repeatedly threatened for standing up to Iran’s ruling mullahs.

This year, it is Raif Badawi — jailed, publicly lashed, and fined for standing up to the Saudi monarchy — who is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside his also-imprisoned lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair. In January, 18 Nobel laureates wrote to the president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Makkah Province, urging Saudi academics to stand up for the blogger.

Standing up for your values is most difficult when those closest to you are violating them. It’s easy for Western leaders to condemn the Taliban, the Islamist Charlie Hebdo shooters, Iran for its free speech restrictions, China for jailing Liu Xiaobo, or the murderers in Bangladesh.

But going up against Saudi Arabia — chief exporter of both oil and Islamism — is the real test. Who will do it?

The United States won’t. The superpower whose most recent Republican president famously held hands with the late King Abdullah as they strolled through his ranch, and most recent Democratic president apparently bowed to him, is terrified of offending the Saudis.

Other Western countries won’t do it either. David Cameron, recently praised for his insightful speech on combating Islamism, flew the union flag at half-mast to mourn the death of King Abdullah in January. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also seemingly “courageous” in his denouncement of Islamism, simultaneously conducted a $15 billion arms deal with the kingdom that’s contingent on secrecy.

Refreshingly, for a little while this year, Sweden was the exception to all this. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who had denounced the Saudis’ outrageous treatment of Raif Badawi, triggered a diplomatic firestorm when she wrote a speech for Arab leaders, calling them out on human rights abuses and their treatment of women. A day later, Sweden also revoked a decade-long weapons export agreement with Saudi Arabia, infuriating the Saudis.

Accusing Wallström of “flagrant interference,” they blocked her speech and recalled their ambassador to Stockholm, severing diplomatic ties. They stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen, and refused to renew the visas of Swedes who had them. They even refused to accept four Amazonian monkeys from Sweden for a Riyadh zoo. Ultimately, Wallström was compelled to backtrack and assuage Saudi authorities, telling them her speech wasn’t meant to insult Islam, and the Swedish government wants to restore good relations with Saudi Arabia (Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia totaled $1.3 billion last year). Wallström drew a significant amount of criticism from the Swedish business community and its lawmakers for her stance. This is the cost of trying to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, even for one of the most progressive social democratic countries in the world.

And that brings us to the United Nations. Will it stand up to the Saudis?

Probably not. Saudi Arabia has been given a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. This year, the Saudis — who ban churches, temples, or the practice of any religion except Sunni Islam in their country — even hosted a human rights summit on freedom of religion, happily attended by the president of the Human Rights Council himself. And one of the main reasons Sweden scrambled to normalize relations with the Saudis during the Wallström affair was to prevent damaging its chances of re-election to the U.N. security council. The U.N.’s priorities on this seem pretty clear.

That leaves the Nobel committee. At times, the Peace Prize has been given not just to recognize people’s achievements, but also to pressure them to do better. Giving Raif the prize would do both. It would recognize the efforts of all those around the world who have been jailed or killed this year for intrepidly speaking out in places where it’s needed the most. And it would also send a strong message to Saudi Arabia from the rest of the civilized world — a message that neither the U.S., the U.N., or any other Western country has yet had the courage to properly convey.

It really has been a notorious year for writers, cartoonists, bloggers, and journalists. They haven’t just been censored, but imprisoned, publicly whipped, massacred in cold blood, and hacked to death with machetes. They need to know how much the rest of us value their contributions, sacrifices, and courage.

By going up against the Saudis’ human rights abuses and free speech restrictions, Raif Badawi has done what even Barack Obama won’t do. Yet, of the two, it is Obama who has a Nobel Peace Prize.

This year, the Nobel committee needs to change that.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

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