Donald Trump thinks big. Ambition large and small stirs in the presidential breast. Even his meanest critics, skeptical of what his ambitions are, give him that. The largest of those ambitions now is to do something to eliminate the radical Islamic terrorism that has set the world aflame.
His mission to Saudi Arabia, the first foreign trip of his administration, has already paid a dividend. Whether it’s a dividend that will pay interest as the years roll by is for the decades ahead to determine.
But with the establishment of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, the Saudis and their like-minded Muslim allies have taken a first step toward relief, if not peace. Salman, the Saudi king, has hardly nailed 95 theses to the door of the mosque. He’s no Martin Luther in an Arabian robe, igniting an Islamic reformation like the rebuke of Rome. But it’s a start.
“Saudi Arabia has adopted a steady, persistent approach to confront extremism,” writes Ali Shihabi, the director of the Arabia Foundation, elsewhere in these Commentary pages today. “The kingdom reformed some of the more controversial aspects of its educational system, strengthening oversight of teachers, textbooks and curricula. Through the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, it is safeguarding vulnerable populations by sponsoring awareness campaigns to help Saudi youth recognize and confront extremist propaganda. Senior clerics issued fatwas refuting religious extremism and prohibiting Saudis from fighting for jihadi causes. They also helped the central government impose stronger vetting of preachers, sermons and religious publications.
“Culture and entertainment in the kingdom is now filled with targeted anti-extremist messages. Saudi television programs such as ‘Jihad Experiences,’ ‘The Deceit’ and ‘The Return of Perception’ routinely feature regretful ex-jihadists and religious scholars. Under the late King Abdullah, the Saudi religious establishment spearheaded a public awareness campaign to invalidate religious rulings propagated by unqualified ‘satellite and internet sheikhs.’”
Some of these steps taken in the name of reform will strike anyone in the West as abuse in the name of curtailing abuse. Under Saudi law, those who speak their piece on internet web sites in support of extremist groups — which are likely to be defined in law and language that offend small-d democrats — with heavy fines and prison sentences. Nevertheless, it’s a hopeful answer the questions posed in the West about why, if there are any moderates in the Middle East, won’t they speak up? Now some of them have.
Anything like a First Amendment, guaranteeing the freedom to worship as a worshipper pleases, would be anathema to the Saudis, not just to the king but to most of his subjects. Rejecting Islam to become Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Hottentot converts is punishable by death, and likely to remain so. The concept of faith, as something of the heart and not submission enforced at the point of gun or scimitar, can be neither comprehended by devout Muslims nor tolerated by most Islamic governments.
But who knows what might follow the establishment of this Saudi center? It’s a pity that Barack Obama, with his knowledge of and sympathy for Islam, did not encourage such Islamic movement toward religious tolerance as America and the West understand religious tolerance.
And how ironic that the president who flew to the other end of the earth to celebrate with the king and dozens of invited leaders of Arabia the founding of the Global Center is not Mr. Obama, but Donald Trump, widely portrayed across the world as the foeman of the Muslim faith. Mr. Trump does not, in fact, appear to know much about heartfelt religion, having once told an interviewer that he has never asks God’s forgiveness for his sins because he has never done anything wrong. But he got this much right, and the world might one day owe him a thank-you for it.