President Donald Trump has singled out a U.S. military dog that helped corner Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before he killed himself during a Saturday mission in Syria. In doing so, he has waded into the Middle East’s — and his own — complicated history with the species.
As he announced the extremist group leader’s death in Sunday morning remarks from the White House, the commander in chief sent mixed messages about canines. It was difficult to determine how Trump, widely known as not a big animal fan, feels about dogs, even as he described the Syria raid.
By both describing in some detail how the U.S. military K-9 cornered al-Baghdadi and saying the terrorist mastermind “died like a dog,” it was not clear the president was all that immersed in the Muslim world’s centuries-old skepticism of the species.
America’s other post-9/11 presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, tried to respect the traditions and views of Islam, but the 45th president has a history of criticizing it and attacking some Muslims — including Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, two members of the all-female, all-minority House “squad.”
“Our K-9, as they call it,” Trump said Sunday. “I call it a dog. A beautiful dog, a talented dog, was injured and brought back.”
We have declassified a picture of the wonderful dog (name not declassified) that did such a GREAT JOB in capturing and killing the Leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi! pic.twitter.com/PDMx9nZWvw— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2019
But many in the Middle East and Muslim world see the species much differently.
“It’s certainly a cultural dynamic, a difference between our culture and theirs, that the [U.S.] military has tried to be very mindful of since 9/11,” said one retired military officer who served in the Middle East and was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “It struck me as soon as the president said that on Sunday.”
One reason the president pointing out that it was a dog that ultimately cornered al-Baghdadi — leading him to opt to detonate an explosive vest that killed him and three of his children — was culturally significant is that “dogs in Islam, as they are in Rabbinic Judaism, are conventionally thought of as ritually impure,” according to Alan Mikhail, a Yale history professor.
“This idea taps into a long tradition that considers even the mere sight of a dog during prayer to have the power to nullify a pious Muslim’s supplications,” Mikhail wrote for Quartz India.
But, like Trump’s, Mikhail notes that Islam’s relationship with dogs is complicated.
Early Muslims did keep dogs, and there are records to the effect that the Prophet Muhammad “prayed in the presence of dogs” and that “in the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, the second holiest site in the world for Muslims after the Kaaba, dogs were regularly seen frolicking about during the prophet’s life and for centuries after as well.”
Mikhail and other historians pinpoint the once-rural religion’s shift on dogs to its transition to urban areas. As factors like urban trash piles — which the canines regularly ate — bred lethal diseases, the animals became symbols of sickness and death in humans.
“Packs of dogs were a major problem in many Islamic centers. They carried rabies and various other diseases, but it was recognized that their scavenging filled an important function,” Stanley Coren, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of several books about dogs, wrote for Psychology Today.
By the 1700s, Mikhail wrote, “dogs were now seen as dangerous, disease-ridden, and expendable.” He described that the “sea change in Muslim attitudes towards dogs explains the dominant view of the animal today” and even “several large-scale dog eradication campaigns.” More than 300 years later, he noted, “the majority of Muslims see dogs as dirty, impure, sometimes even evil.”
Other historians have suggested Muhammad spread anti-canine messages, and others say some Muslims’ view of the species stems from Zoroastrianism, an early rival of Islam. “Dogs were prized by Zoroastrians, and treated with great affection and reverence. If you look at the way history works, it is often the case that the gods of the old religion are converted into the devils of the new religion,” Coren wrote.
Still, some Muslims do keep dogs. And Mikhail noted that some of the “elite in many Muslim countries keep dogs as status symbols.”
Trump also has a complicated relationship with dogs. He has praised the one that cornered al-Baghdadi, but moments later he depicted the species in rather unfavorable terms.
“He died like a dog,” Trump said of the ISIS leader. “He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place.”
‘Begging … like a dog’
Since he became a presidential candidate in 2015, Trump has said and tweeted a slew of remarks comparing humans he is criticizing to canines. He hit one conservative media executive for going to his Manhattan office and “begging for money like a dog.”
A White House official did not dispute his boss’s previous canine-themed attacks on foes, but described the dog that chased down al-Baghdadi as a national hero.
“Sure, but it’s a dog who helped kill the No. 1 terrorist in the world. And it might be that the only way to further honor the troops who carried out the raid is to celebrate the dog because they would want their identities to stay secret,” the official said.
Still, Trump’s predilection for associating dogs with unfavorable images is well-documented. In December 2015, he wrote that conservative commentator Glenn Beck “got fired like a dog by #Fox.”
In February 2016, he implied in a tweet that GOP primary rival Sen. Ted Cruz was, like a dog, untrustworthy: “Ted Cruz lifts the Bible high into the air and then lies like a dog — over and over again!”
Former “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, Trump wrote in March 2016, “got thrown off of TV by NBC, fired like a dog!”
What prompted the future president to compare Gregory to a dog? “Now he is on @CNN being nasty to me. Not nice!” Trump wrote then.
In June 2016, he hammered 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney for losing to a “failed president” [Obama], tweeting that the future Utah senator “choked like a dog.”
He dubbed former “Apprentice” personality and West Wing aide Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” after she was fired for recording conversations with him and other aides in a tweet that also called her “crazed” and a “crying lowlife.”
Mitt Romney had his chance to beat a failed president but he choked like a dog. Now he calls me racist-but I am least racist person there is— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2016
When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2018
Another Trump target was Tim O’Brien, who penned the 2005 book “Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald” and criticized his former subject in an August television interview. O’Brien had been “Fired like a dog from other jobs,” the president alleged in a tweet.
Just watched a world class loser, Tim O’Brien, who I haven’t seen or spoken to in many years, & knows NOTHING about me except that he wrote a failed hit piece book about me 15 years ago. Fired like a dog from other jobs? Saw him on Lyin’ Brian Williams Trump Slam Show. Bad TV….— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2019
In the latter part of his remarks on al-Baghdadi and in the canine-themed attacks, Trump was describing dogs as untrustworthy animals that can be quickly cast aside.
So his praise of the military canine involved in the Syria raid — and a report of an open invitation to the executive mansion that the White House declined Tuesday to confirm — could run the twin risk of further alienating Muslims, and inflaming ISIS members and sympathizers across the world.
The retired U.S. military officer who served in the region noted that American forces have used highly trained canines — especially for their bomb-sniffing noses — in America’s post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Locals mostly tolerated the dogs’ presence, he said.
“Look, they knew we were different than them. They knew our cultures are different,” the retired officer said. “But you could tell they didn’t always like having our dogs around. But, for us, the dogs were an operational necessity — you have to keep those under your command safe, first and foremost. And the dogs were uniquely able to do that.”