So much cotton candy

This week U.S. President Donald Trump conducted a whistle-stop tour of three world religions, visiting Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican within six days. Despite being spared any major diplomatic gaffs, the rest of the world has little reason to rejoice. Commentary by Alexander Görlach

By Alexander Görlach

One of the titles the bishops of Rome bear is Pontifex Maximus. Derived from the city′s ancient Roman past and literally meaning "supreme bridge-builder", this is a reference to the papal position between God and men, as mediator and final legitimate seal of all Catholic teaching. With U.S. President Donald Trump′s visit to the Vatican, it was tempting to nominate him Murifex Maximus, the "supreme wall-builder".

Both personalities, the Pope's and Trump's, could not be more different: when it comes to refugees Pope Francis urged Catholic clergy in throughout Europe to take in people in need from Syria. Donald Trump on the other hand declared that the U.S. would not take in any person that, in his world view, might or might not turn out to be a terrorist.

Donald Trump believes climate change to be a hoax by the Chinese. The Pope from Argentina on the other hand has a degree in chemistry and has been one of the protagonists in the negotiations of the Paris Climate Treaty behind closed doors. Nothing less than solving the Middle East conflict was the goal Donald Trump, self proclaimed "deal-maker", foresaw for his trip to the cradle of the three monotheistic religions.

Weapons to solve a conflict?

The only real deal, however, he sealed, was a hundred billion dollar deal in weapons. Speaking in Saudi-Arabia to about 50 Sunni Muslim leaders from around the world, he scapegoated Iran for all the terror that is committed these days in the name of Islam.

Alexander Goerlach (photo: David Elmes/Harvard University)
Alexander Goerlach is a visiting scholar at Harvard University where he researches at both the Center for European Studies and die Divinity School, in the field of politics and religion. Alex is a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and an op-ed contributor to the New York Times

The facts withstand Mr. Trump′s claims: several terrorists of 9/11 were Saudi and Wahhabism, the militant ′Stone Age′ version of Islamic thinking, invented in Saudi Arabia of all places, is the main inspiration for groups like IS and al-Qaida. It is no secret that the Saudi monarchy sponsors terror organisations throughout the globe.

Not that Iran is a saint. Yet Mr. Trump failed to paint an honest picture during his presentation. No doubt keen not to lose the weapons deal, he was fulsome in his praise of the Sunni leadership, while roundly condemning the Shia. The U.S. president is adept at finding someone to blame: at home it is Mexicans, the Chinese, the Muslims.

By applying this rhetoric abroad – the trip to Saudi-Arabia, Israel and the Vatican was the first trip of the 45th commander-in-chief of the United States of America – he persisted in dividing the world into "us versus them".

Cultivating a feeling

This mechanism seems to be inherent to human behaviour, regardless of ethnic background or religious belief.

The French philosopher and anthropologist Rene Girard claimed that scapegoats are used to give the majority the feeling that a problem, a situation has been solved. The humiliation and banishment of the scapegoat is thus a source of great relief to the society in question, Girard continued. For the outsider, however, it is all too clear that the alleged culprit is not responsible for the disorder or dismay a society may be facing.

And indeed, neither homosexuals in Russia nor journalists in Turkey are in fact to blame for their countries′ problems, but rather their current autocratic rulers. It is therefore not illegitimate to put Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump in the same group. The U.S., however, remains a democracy, fighting with all its check and balances to repel the strikes of the populist Donald Trump.

Trump′s divisive stance

At a time when representatives of religions are trying to be the agents of inclusion, raising their voices against extremism in God's name, it is anachronistic that ′the leader of the free world′ should be applying a rhetoric and displaying a world view that was once the bread-and-butter of religion. Anyone aspiring to such a claim cannot afford to adopt such a divisive stance. True, Donald Trump rightfully assessed that the war on terror is not a war being waged between Christianity or the West and the religion of Islam. Instead, the U.S. president regards it as a battle between good and evil.

Nevertheless, this pleasantly true statement does not suffice to disguise the true convictions of Donald Trump. Indeed one could argue the more scapegoat, the fewer deals. Someone who really delivers or speaks the truth about realistically achievable political goals has scant need of scapegoating the weak in society. This is the message of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But it is not one that Donald Trump has understood.

Alexander Görlach

© 2017