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Muslim-American Thought Leaders React To Trump's Speech In Saudi Arabia

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been calling a range of Muslim-American thought leaders throughout the day. As you might imagine, we heard a range of views. We'll start with Reza Aslan. He's a professor, author and the host of CNN'S "Believer With Reza Aslan." Reza, thanks so much for joining us once again.

REZA ASLAN: Oh, it's a pleasure to be back on the show, Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: Let's start with the language the president used today. A number of people have noted that it seemed very different from the language that candidate Trump used. Today he called Islam one of the world's greatest religions. He called for tolerance and respect for each religion. How did that strike you?

ASLAN: Look, I'm going to be honest with you, Michel, it's becoming increasingly difficult to have these kinds of conversations. I mean, I have to sit here. I have to provide a sober analysis of a trip to promote religious tolerance made by a man who made religious intolerance the hallmark of his divisive campaign, a man who said Islam hates us, who called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, who called for a registry of all Muslims already here, including U.S. citizens, a man whose very name has become a kind of racial slur in the mounts of some of his supporters.

MARTIN: He did very specifically direct our attention to Iran. He said that, you know. Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. He said Iran is to blame for the lack of stability in Syria. Along with yourself, we've talked to a number of American Muslims of different backgrounds and expertise, and they were virtually unanimous in saying that this is not a helpful approach. I'll just play one clip from Trita Parsi. He's the president of the National Iranian American Council.

TRITA PARSI: Rather than this being a speech that will be remembered for the call for a new era of peace, it may end up being remembered as the speech that set off a new era of confrontation with Iran, one that was sparked and initiated by Donald Trump at the request of the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: Would it be accurate to say that you agree?

ASLAN: Well, I think Trita is right in the sense that this is less a speech about Islam and more a kind of PR stunt for the Saudi regime. I mean, the fact that he could stand there in front of an autocratic regime that has spent tens of billions of dollars over the last few decades actively promoting the very kind of Islamic puritanism that has fueled groups like al-Qaida and ISIS and talk about Iran as the chief sponsor of terrorism in the world - which is, of course, exactly what Saudi wants - is an indication that the audience for this speech wasn't Muslims. The audience for this speech was the Saudi regime.

MARTIN: We also spoke with the director of CAIR that's the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Nihad Awad had this to say. I just want to play a little bit of that and ask you to react to that.

NIHAD AWAD: Before Trump lectured the world about human rights and civil rights, he should himself respect civil rights and human rights at home. He enacted the Muslim ban and continues to defend it in court, so he cannot just talk from both sides of his mouth.

ASLAN: Absolutely right. The problem with the message is the messenger. It really doesn't matter the words that come out of President Trump's mouth in Saudi Arabia. No one can forget that he has made anti-Muslim sentiment not just the foundation of his campaign, but the foundation of his four-month presidency.

MARTIN: That's Reza Aslan. He's an author, a scholar and host of CNN's "Believer With Reza Aslan." We reached him at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Reza Aslan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ASLAN: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.