- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009



President Obama is going to Egypt next month to deliver a major speech about U.S. relations with Islam and the Muslim world, but Egypt is a big country and its capital, Cairo, is an immense metropolis. What site will be the forum for this landmark event?

For the greatest impact, the president would do well to consider Al Azhar, Cairo’s 1,000-year-old mosque and university, a center of Islamic scholarship for centuries and a symbol to Muslims of the historic glories of their faith. The school attracts students from all over the Muslim world, and the institution is an integral part of Islamic history.

The search for an appropriate venue for this event has not been easy. The holiest places in Islam, in Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia, were out of the question because non-Muslims are not permitted to go there. Nor could the president have chosen the third holiest site, Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, because it would have been counterproductive to deliver this speech from a place that is under Israeli control.

The historic seats of the Arab caliphate, Damascus and Baghdad, would have presented different problems: Damascus was out because Syria is on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and going to Baghdad to talk about Islam would have landed the president on the sensitive dividing line between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

The content of Mr. Obama’s speech in Egypt may be less important than the symbolism because he has already made clear that he intends to pursue a constructive relationship with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. He gave his first interview as president to the Arabic satellite channel Al Arabiya, and in Ankara last month, he told Turkey’s Grand National Assembly that the United States “is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

“Our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a violent ideology that people of all faiths reject,” Mr. Obama said in that address. “The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy. That is the future we must work for, and we must work for it together.”

That commitment given, the president now needs a site that will maximize the visual and emotional impact of what he is going to say. Al Azhar, in the historic heart of Cairo, would fill that prescription.

The original mosque of Al Azhar (“resplendent” or “most shining”) was completed in 972 under the rule of the Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz, designed not just as a house of worship but as a center of public assembly and scholarship. Within a few years, according to an Arab historian, the center’s administrator, Yaqub ibn Killis, “established places at his court for scholars who were men of letters, poets, legal authorities and theologians. … He composed books on jurisprudence and on Tuesdays held meetings which were attended by scholars of the law, as well as by theologians and the students of polemics, who engaged in debates.” That tradition of eclectic scholarship, focused on the Koran, Islamic law and the Arabic language, continues to this day, although since the 1960s Al Azhar has also been a full-scale university with a parallel secular curriculum and female students.

As a venue for what Mr. Obama is trying to achieve, Al Azhar has two other advantages. Having stood for 10 centuries, it is not specifically associated with the current, widely unpopular Egyptian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. And it became a symbol of Muslim resistance to European power when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 and his troops desecrated the mosque, stabling their horses in the courtyard - an event of which visitors to Al Azhar are still reminded. No other site in Egypt would add as much impact to the words the president will deliver.

Thomas W. Lippman, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “Understanding Islam.”

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