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.