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Trump Takes On Ambitious Plan To Eliminate Terrorism By Radical Islamists


President Trump faces the challenge of making good on many promises, including this from his inauguration speech.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten is here in our studios to talk us through how the president might approach that goal. Good morning, Tom.


INSKEEP: Irradicate completely from the face of the earth, how do you do that?

GJELTEN: Well, first we need to know what he means by that. You know, Donald Trump speaks with a certain amount of hyperbole and ambiguity, I think we could say. To me, radical Islamic terrorism sounds like an ideology, a particular religious belief system. Now, that doesn't mean it can't be eradicated. But when ideologies are eradicated, it usually is because they eradicate themselves, they become discredited, fall completely out of favor...

INSKEEP: People stop believing them, yeah.

GJELTEN: Exactly. There aren't too many examples in history of people eradicating belief systems by force. So I assume that what he's talking about here involves military operations to some extent.

INSKEEP: Somehow destroying everyone who holds this ideology. Although I'm remembering years ago President George W. Bush was asked when do you win the war on terror? And he actually said you don't ever win. You never eliminate everybody who wants to harm you in the world.

GJELTEN: Well, Donald Trump is not George W. Bush...


GJELTEN: ...So we'll see. You know, he could do some things. The Obama administration was constrained by its - in its military operations against the Taliban, against ISIS, al-Qaida by its concern about civilian casualties and getting U.S. troops in harm's way. So Trump could move some on that. But to the extent that he actually is interested in moving against Islam as a religion, it's going to alienate allies in the Middle East.

And reinforcing alliances, which is what he talked about with countries like Jordan, would sure be more difficult.

INSKEEP: OK, so now you're getting at some of the difficulties here. You can make military strikes, you can intensify military strikes, but you're saying it's a war against an idea. You want to make sure you hit the right idea, that you don't alienate people who are your allies...


INSKEEP: ...A billion of them, possibly. How do you do that?

GJELTEN: Well, the one thing that we're going to see from Trump, I'm sure, is different rhetoric. He thought the Obama administration was way too reluctant to condemn the treatment of women and gays in some of these countries, should have been more willing to talk about human rights in places where Islam dominates. Beyond that, there are some specific things I think we should be watching for.

One, for example, is whether he is willing or ready to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. He's under some very specific pressure to do that from, among other people, Senator Ted Cruz, who has introduced a bill that would do exactly that.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, very powerful organization. It was a political party, in effect, for a while in Egypt and, in fact, elected a president of Egypt a couple of years ago before the president was removed.

GJELTEN: Exactly - favors a more sort of political interpretation of Islam. Now, here in the United States, it spanned through the years actually more involved in trying to get American Muslims to be devout, to stay active in their faith. Particularly in the early years of Muslim immigration, it was very active in promoting the establishment of mosques and Muslim organizations here.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Tom. Of course one way that this has entered the campaign is the question of whether to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The president proposed that at one point in the campaign. He later revised it somewhat. He's talked about extreme vetting of people from areas affected by terrorism.

What's that - how's that going to affect his immigration policies now that he's actually making them?

GJELTEN: I think that one really important thing to look for is whether there is a move, whether he promotes a move to repeal, to scale back a law that was passed in 1990 that said you can't bar people from the United States on the basis of their past, current or expected beliefs as long as those beliefs would be legal in the U.S. I predict there's going to be a lot of talk about changing that law in order to make it legal to keep out immigrants with particular religious or political beliefs.

This could be the way he gets at this idea of extreme vetting. It would be especially important if those beliefs would suggest some more militant or radical understanding of Islam.

INSKEEP: OK, Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: Of course.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.