WASHINGTON — The difference between “Islamic extremism” and “Islamist extremism”? One exhausted President.
President Donald Trump’s substitution of the slightly different terms during his highly anticipated speech in Saudi Arabia on Sunday might go unnoticed by the average US listener.
But the subtle change — or slip, as the White House called it — could mean the difference between offending Middle Eastern allies and not, a concern for any president looking to create a good first impression with a key ally on a first trip abroad.
Using the word “Islamic,” a reference to the religion, in the same breath as “terrorism” could be seen by Muslims as an affront to their faith and actually play into the terrorists’ “clash of civilizations” narrative — reasons why President Barack Obama assiduously avoided the combination during his presidency.
“Islamist,” meanwhile, refers to political movements that seek to implement Islamic law and theology, making it less objectionable to Muslims when paired with “terrorism,” the idea goes.
Trump, however, often repeated the more controversial “radical Islamic terrorism” on the campaign trail in a deliberate and implicit criticism of Obama, implying that his preferred phrasing betrayed naivete or, worse, political correctness at the expense of realism about how to defeat the terrorist threat.
Trump’s speech marked a departure from his his rhetoric on the campaign and in the Oval Office — at least, to a degree. Although the prepared remarks referred to “Islamist extremism,” Trump actually referred to both “Islamists” and “Islamic extremism,” as well as “Islamic terror,” in the speech.
“There is still much work to be done,” Trump said. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
On Sunday night, a senior White House official said Trump’s decision to say “Islamic extremism” instead of “Islamist extremism” as written in his prepared remarks was not intentional but the product of exhaustion brought on by the rigorous travel schedule.
“Just an exhausted guy,” the senior White House official said.
According to the White House,the President hadn’t gotten much sleep. He edited the speech with his aides during the 14-hour journey from Washington, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, and spent the remainder of the flight reading newspapers, an aide said.