Why Cairo? Why Not Baghdad?
President Barack Obama is slated to give a speech on June 4th that is being billed as his message to the Islamic ‘ummah’—the worldwide community of Muslims. He has chosen to send this message out from Egypt, and word is that the venue is to be the Al-Azhar University and Mosque.
If you’re confused and saying to yourself, “Didn’t he just make a speech to the Muslims like a month ago?” well, that didn’t count since he delivered it at the Turkish National Assembly of Ankara, which is, symbolically-speaking, as potent an anti-Islamic symbol as you can find.
Egypt was ostensibly chosen for its symbolic value, which somehow trumps whatever negative connotations of such a locale lending legitimacy by proxy to the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak, or so the argument goes.
But it got me to thinking, what’s so symbolic about Egypt for the rest of the Muslim world?
Setting aside the snide historical association made on a pro-jihadist discussion forum between Obama and Napoleon, then sure, Cairo holds plenty of symbolism if one is an Arab Nationalist of the Nasserist type, but why would Muslims in South Asia or Africa or the Far East look towards Cairo for spiritual guidance?
The short answer is that they don’t, since Cairo’s Islamic symbolism is a modern fabrication, probably pulled off by the Brits where they controlled the place. At the time, the British needed to create a new center of Islamic gravity to undermine any influence the Ottomans made have on Britain’s colonial Muslim subjects. But that’s a long story, so just take my word for it.
Cairo as we know it is city that was built long after the heyday of classical Islam. When the Arab conquerors first arrived brandishing their new faith, they chose to camp to the northwest of what came to be known as Old Cairo, a mixed Coptic and Jewish town.
Old Cairo holds more symbolism for Judaism (…think Moses) and Christianity (…think Virgin Mary and Jesus taking flight) than anything of comparable value to Islam.
After much urban sprawl northwards, the Fatimid ‘renegades’—heterodox Shi’as—conquer most of Egypt and begin building a royal court/town and call it Al-Qahirah, or Cairo. They’re the ones who founded the Al-Azher Mosque. The Fatimids continue to expand their empire, prompting a Sunni orthodox backlash led many decades later by Saladin, who nonetheless chooses Damascus over Cairo as his final resting place.
In this light, one cheeky enough would say that Cairo holds more symbolism for the Druze than the Sunnis.
Sure, al-Shafi’i—one of the founders of the four main Sunni sects—is buried in Cairo, but then again Baghdad boasts two other founders, Abu Hanifa and Ibn Hanbal. I can’t think of any notable Sufis who are buried in Cairo. Tanta has al-Badawi, but c’mon, Tanta is Tanta.
For many centuries, it was thought that whoever held Egypt also held the Hijaz, the birthplace of Islam. But that’s just a logistical reality, since the ports of the Red Sea would furnish the arid environs of Mecca and Medina, and the multitudes of pilgrims congregating there, with grain. Egypt did not become holier for Islam by being the breadbasket of the Hijaz; just as Saudi Arabia importing U.S. cereals does not sanctify Kansas in the eyes of Muslims.
Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem are all problematic for Obama, for obvious reasons. Two are no-go zones for an ‘infidel’ and one, let’s just say, is slightly disputed.
Damascus is a far better choice than Cairo as a Sunni symbol: it was a seat of a Sunni Islamic empire, the Umayyad; it was visited twice by Muhammad (…although he didn’t enter the city proper); the great Sufi mystic Ibn al-Arabi is buried there, so is an important 19th century Sufi propagator, Khalid al-Naqshbandi.
But it is ruled over by heterodox Alawites, and if you thought the Mubarak regime was cruel, then the Asads and their Ba’athist cohorts most certainly take the cake.
Which leaves us with Baghdad. Not only was Baghdad the seat of the Abbasid Empire, it contains the shrines for a great line up of Sufis: Al-Hallaj, al-Junaid and Abdel-Qader al-Gilani.
When it comes to Shi’a symbolism, and after all, some twenty percent of Obama’s intended audience is not Sunni, then Baghdad boasts two of the twelve imams.
And guess what, Iraq is a democracy, despite all the naysayers. It is light years ahead of Egypt, that’s for sure.
Oh wait, I’ve forgotten that America wants to forget all about Iraq.
Look, I’m one of those people who adores Cairo for all the things that many people hate about it. That’s probably because I don’t have to live there. I think Cairo’s greatest story arc revolves around its 19th century narrative of generations-long Westernization and liberalization that for the first time in a 1,000 years (…or even longer) incorporated the original Egyptians into the ruling elite (see my column, Egypt’s Faded Elegance). All that came to an abrupt end with Nasserism, a tale epically recounted in the movie The Yaqoubian Building, which is far more compelling than the novel it was based on.
But Cairo ain’t an Islamic symbol. And it was not a wisely chosen venue for Obama’s speech.
Al-Azhar gave us Hassan al-Banna (…the Muslim Brotherhood), Taqi al-Din al-Nabahani (…the Hizbul Tahrir), Seyyid Qutub (…modern jihadism, and yes, Dar Al-Uloom was part of Al-Azhar), and the prominence of the Zawahiri family. It also produced a long list of kowtowers for whoever was in power.
Choosing Al-Azhar is not a public diplomacy coup; there plenty in its past to sully any reflected luster.
Obama could have done a lot better with Baghdad, or even Delhi.
But it is too late to reschedule the presidential agenda.