Fresh off a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he spoke in conciliatory tones about Islam and urged religious unity in the fight against terrorism, President Donald Trump has squandered two major opportunities to fix his broken relationship with Muslims living in America.
The president first sent out a statement about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that insulted many Muslims by focusing extensively on terrorism. Then he failed to quickly condemn the stabbing deaths of two men in Portland, Oregon, who stood up to a man haranguing a teenager believed to be Muslim.
Trump’s comments, or slowness to say anything, alarmed the U.S. Muslim community, which has felt under siege since his improbable rise on the 2016 campaign trail. The developments also fueled concerns that Trump is unwilling to denounce white nationalists who have seized upon his presidency to promote their worldview.
“The president contextualizes Muslims as foreigners and as national security threats, and it seems his hostility toward American Muslims is promoting this narrative of hate that led to the stabbings in Oregon,” said Robert McCaw, a top official with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Trump needs to make it clear once and for all that American Muslims are equal citizens and that they also need protection.”
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Trump, back home after a swing through the Middle East and Europe, was active on Twitter over the weekend, but it wasn’t until Monday morning that the Republican president tweeted that about Friday’s killings in Portland. And that was through his official White House account, which is thought to be handled by an aide, not the personal one Trump that often uses himself and which has far more followers.
“The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them,” read the tweet on the @POTUS Twitter account.
According to various reports, three men intervened in Portland on Friday when they saw a man on a train making racist and otherwise intimidating comments to two young women, one of whom was wearing a headscarf. The suspect, Jeremy Joseph Christian, is alleged to have turned on the defenders with a knife, killing two and wounding the third. Christian is reported to have a history of Nazi and white nationalist sympathies.
As Portland grieved, Muslim activists and many of their allies took to social media to vent their frustration over Trump’s long silence. Some noted that Monday was Memorial Day, and that one of the men killed was an Army veteran. Many accused Trump of failing to acknowledge any kind of violence other than the Islamist kind, even as reports indicate that white nationalist activity is growing under Trump.
“Call me crazy but had a Muslim killed two white Christians in Portland I suspect our president would have said something,” commentator Peter Beinart wrote on Twitter.
Veteran TV anchor Dan Rather took to Facebook to urge Trump to speak up.
“This ‘extremism’ may be of a different type than gets most of your attention, or even the attention in the press. But that doesn’t make it any less serious, or deadly. And this kind of ‘extremism’ is on the rise, especially in the wake of your political ascendency,” Rather wrote.
Trump’s hesitation to talk about Portland reminded many of his muted response to an attack on a mosque in Canada that left six people dead early on in his presidency. The White House said Trump offered condolences to Canada’s prime minister, but the president issued no statement of his own on the attack, nor did he speak publicly of it.
White nationalists and others often affiliated with the so-called “alt-right” have championed Trump since he began running for office. His campaign-era call for the U.S. to bar Muslims from entry resonated with many in that crowd, as did his attempt once in office to impose a travel ban on people from several majority-Muslim countries.
Trump has taken some steps in recent weeks to counter claims that he hates Muslims, not least because of his apparent recognition that, on the international front, the United States needs the cooperation of Muslim-majority countries in the global fight against terrorism. His visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with the leaders of many Muslim-majority countries, was considered an overall success. His speech in particular struck conciliatory tones.
But Trump has largely kept his distance from Muslims who live in the United States. The White House, for instance, has yet to say if the president will hold an event to mark Ramadan, something Trump’s recent predecessors have done. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also reported to have declined to host a Ramadan event, breaking with some two decades of tradition at the State Department.
Both men issued statements congratulating the world’s Muslims as they began observing Ramadan last week. Trump’s words, however, sparked criticism in the Muslim community because they focused more on fighting terrorism than the traditions normally associated with Ramadan, such as giving to charity.
“America will always stand with our partners against terrorism and the ideology that fuels it,” Trump said in the written statement. “During this month of Ramadan, let us be resolved to spare no measure so that we may ensure that future generations will be free of this scourge and able to worship and commune in peace.”
Rabia Chaudry, a Muslim-American activist, summed up her interpretation of Trump’s statement in the following tweet: “Trump to Muslims on Ramadan: ‘don’t be a terrorist’.”