Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

« Previous Post | Babylon & Beyond Home | Next Post »

EGYPT: Obama and, maybe, a mosque

May 17, 2009 |  9:56 am


Where, oh where, will the president speak?

The White House has been scouting possible venues for President Obama’s speech in Cairo early next month. Egyptians are hoping the American leader will address the Muslim world from the Al-Azhar Mosque, the most revered institution in Sunni Islam.

The 10th century, sand-colored mosque would – at least for Egyptian officials – provide a resonant backdrop for Obama to reach out to a Muslim world that grew angry and suspicious of the U.S. during eight years of the Bush administration.

Here’s what the Associated Press reported over the weekend about the mosque’s importance to Egyptian history:

“The mosque holds a special place in Egypt's more recent political history as well, a symbol of resistance against Western imperialism. Nationalists launched marches and protests from the mosque during a 1919 revolt against British rule. In 1956, then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser gave a famed speech from Al-Azhar's pulpit rallying Egyptians against an invasion by Britain, France and Israel.”

When choosing the speech site, both aesthetics and symbolism come into play, but it is the words that, in the end, will matter most. The Arab world is looking to Obama for many things: improving human rights in police states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia; understanding how Islam has been caricatured since Sept. 11; easing tensions with Iran but not at the expense of America’s Arab allies; and, most importantly, resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Writing in the Al-Ahram Weekly, Dina Ezzat awaits the president’s visit with a bit of pragmatism: 

 “What Obama will say and be able to do will not necessarily be identical, Arab diplomats say. Some suggest that if Obama fails to get the peace process rolling during his first year in office it will be unlikely that he will be able to do so afterwards. The consensus, however, is that Obama has the intelligence and the faith needed to deliver peace in the Middle East, and that the Arabs are willing to do what it takes to aid this along, including overlooking Israel's obstructionist attitudes every once in a while.”

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: A scattering of worshippers leave the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt. When President Barack Obama addresses the Muslim world in a speech from Cairo next month, Egyptian officials hope he will choose the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar mosque, a potent symbolic backdrop that would convey his respect for Islam. Credit: Associated Press File Photo