A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 11, 2009

Egypt as Venue for Obama's Speech: Two Modest Proposals

Since it was announced on Friday that President Obama would make his long-promised address to the Muslim world from Egypt, there has been a fair amount of commentary on the wisdom of the choice of venue. Marc Lynch's piece yesterday is probably a good condensation of the arguments. It seems to me that the real question is not just speaking in Egypt, but where he chooses to give the speech.

I suspect, with Lynch and other analysts, that the White House wanted a friendly Arab country: his previous speech in Turkey received much attention in some quarters, but in the Arab world a non-Arab Muslim country is not as impressive as an Arab one, and I'm sure an Arab country was desired. Thus Obama's former home of Indonesia is out. Iraq doesn't work since it reminds everyone of the US occupation; Jordan's too small; Saudi Arabia would bring up the controversy over the "bowing" again, and so on. Egypt is friendly and can provide intense security.

The downside is it seems to be an endorsement of the Mubarak regime and its human rights record. And there will be those in the Arab world who dismiss a speech in Egypt as simply using a reliable, bought-and-paid-for ally to make the gesture. I think this perception could be alleviated somewhat, however, if a suitable venue were chosen, with symbolic force that transcends the prestige of the regime in power. Speaking in an auditorium, a soccer stadium, or Parliament would be predictable venues, and that may be what they have in mind, but something more creative might make a greater impact.

I have two thoughts to throw out here. First, the White House announcement said that Obama would speak in Egypt: it did not specifically say that he would speak in Cairo. That could leave open the option of the new Library of Alexandria, a symbol of learning and literature in the Muslim world and an evocation of the great tradition of ancient Egypt. It would serve to emphasize that learning retains a prominent role in the Islamic world and emphasize the humane letters and their preservation in a world beset by fanaticism and rage.

The Library of Alexandria might not be specifically Muslim enough as a venue for a speech addressed to the entire Islamic world, of course. In that case, how about this: Obama speaks at Al-Azhar.

The ancient mosque/University of Al-Azhar, founded over 1000 years ago, is perhaps the most prestigious center of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world. It is also a powerful symbol of traditional, but non-radical, Islamic doctrine. Yet Al-Azhar is also a modern university, a reminder that education plays an important role in the region and in Islam as a whole.

I'm sure there would be those who would seize upon a few of the rulings of Azhari sheikhs on controversial issues to argue that it is a hotbed of extremism, but that is not really the case. And those crazies who believe Obama is a secret Muslim would no doubt find their heads exploding at the very thought of a speech at Al-Azhar. But they aren't going to vote for him anyway, and they aren't his intended audience. Muslims are.

So those would be my suggestions: don't ask for an address to Parliament or a speech in a soccer stadium or (worse) a military parade ground, or some tourist isolation booth like Sharm al-Sheikh, where too many summits are held; speak at either the Library of Alexandria or Al-Azhar.


David Mack said...

Good ideas, Mike, especially Al Azhar. Mark Lynch and other critics of Obama's choice of Egypt because of its autocratic regime, miss what is most important. Obama wants to make a real difference, not score philosophic points about "democracy" and "human rights," as we Americans choose to define those concepts. Surely, we had enough preaching about those matters over the years, especially the preceding eight years. Everything Obama has been saying and doing, starting with his inaugural call for a new relationship between the US and the Muslim world, based on "mutual interests and mutual respect," indicates he is as much into listening as he is into projecting American values. We can best do the latter by setting a shining example at home while taking some practical steps abroad, as he has been doing. That way, when Obama speaks in Egypt, it won't be a repeat of the "listen to what we say, don't watch what we do, and nanny knows best what is good for naughty children." However idealistic our intentions, those have too often been the perceived hallmarks of the American missionary approach to foreign policy.

David B Roberts said...

As much as I'd like to see Obama give the speech at Al Azhar, it think it would be far too incendiary. The Library would be nice but, as is mentioned, it isn't overly 'Muslim'.

How about in Tahrir Square? I imagine that the logistics of this would be beyond a nightmare (i.e. traffic etc). But surely this is the beating heart of Egypt, its most central of central squares?

Also, does Egypt's history of assassinations (by the military, no less) not bother anyone?

DBR www.thegulfblog.com

old-timer said...

The Al-Qaeda-types seem to think it is a great idea! It affords them the opportunity to establish a precedent for the speech and that would be the Napoleonic invasion of Muslim lands!

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