Trump's risky religious pilgrimage

May 18, 2017

President Trump is preparing to embark on his first foreign trip since assuming office. He will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican — major sites of the three Abrahamic faiths. A senior administration official said that President Trump’s goal is “making sure that the three faiths work together.” That statement, and the framing of the trip by the administration, is problematic because the President can work with people of different faiths right here in America.

Trump is travelling thousands of miles in search of moderate Muslim voices when there are millions of them all across our country. If President Trump wants to bring different faiths together, then he ought to spend the resources and energy to meet with American Muslim civic organizations that advocate for issues on behalf of the community. He should visit American mosques to gain a better understanding of what some of their concerns are and what are the issues they care about. Change can happen right here at home by starting a dialogue with American Muslims.

While Trump will deliver a speech calling upon Muslim leaders to promote “a peaceful vision of Islam,” he is ignoring American Muslim leaders who have been doing this for some time. How will his speech — written by White House Advisor and architect of the Muslim ban Stephen Miller — be received especially given his suggestion that "Islam hates us"? Also, his audience in Saudi Arabia will be those with autocratic, authoritarian, and oppressive worldviews. If he intends to enact substantial policy changes, he will need to change his rhetoric and improve his relationship with those he tarnished during the campaign.

Also on his trip, Trump will meet with Pope Francis. The President should be commended for wanting to meet the leader of the Catholic faith. This is an opportune moment for Trump to learn about peacemaking. Pope Francis recently met with religious leaders at a peace conference in Cairo where he condemned fanaticism and violence and called on the Egyptian government to protect its religious minority population. Trump can make peace in America by engaging in interreligious dialogue rather than fanning the flames of religious division.

As our President meets with foreign leaders, he must remember that American interests do not always align with the interests of the leaders whose countries he is visiting. For example, in Saudi Arabia, King Salman’s policies towards religious minorities, including Shia Muslims are antithetical to American religious freedom principles. And in Israel, America’s interest in a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians does not align with PM Netanyahu’s policies that undermine a Palestinian state. Trump must leverage strategic alliances without compromising America's values and global leadership.

Let’s be clear: President Trump is right to engage with foreign leaders and nations. But, on the issue of religious unity, building relationships with diverse religious communities in the United States must be his priority.



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