Obama's Call for Cooperation with Islam Begins to Elicit Responses

07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One day before Obama's highly-anticipated Cairo speech, the East Bay Express reported on Zaytuna College in Berkeley, which seeks to be the first fully accredited Muslim college in the United States. Founders Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shaker seek to provide an "American alternative to traditional Muslim education" while upholding the rigorous tradition of Islamic scholarship. Yusuf is known as the "Elvis Presley of Western Muslims" by the Egyptian English-language monthly Egypt Today, which quoted him on the problem of Islam's politicization: "Many Arabs now see Islam as a political movement that will solve their often-excruciating social and economic problems. That is simply false and a dangerous utopian assumption." Both Yusuf and Shaker are converts to Islam born into American Christian households, making them ideal messengers to communicate moderate Islam to the American public.

Meanwhile back here in Cairo, Obama's call for cooperation has already found a willing partner. His visit on Thursday coincided with publicity for the August launch of the satellite channel El Azharia. The channel seeks to use Al Azhar, one of the oldest and best-known Muslim educational institutions, to present "true Islam" to non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslims.

The stated goals of both Zaytuna and Al Azharia require stepping into the Islamic limelight as vocal moderates, a stage that has typically shown radicals hogging the spotlight.

Air Force One had not yet taken off for Germany and I was already sitting down to interview Sheikh Khaled El Guindy, a member of Egypt's Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs and one of Al Alzhar's most famous imams. Hassan Tatanaki interjected occasionally: as the source of $2.7 million needed to launch the 24-hour channel, the august sheikh forgave the wealthy philanthrocapitalist for intermittent commentary.

I couldn't catch how his translator phrased it, but I asked the sheikh to give me his "elevator speech" for Al Azharia. He expounded on Al Azhar as an ideal source from which to communicate "true Islam" to young Muslims and non-Muslims: not suicide bombing and celestial virgins, but spirituality partnered with rigorous scholarship.

"Al Azhar breeds no fanatics because our students spend years studying many different schools of Islamic thought and thus they learn that there is more than way to think. Fanatics only accept one point of view as legitimate: theirs," El Guindy explained.

Tatanaki interposed that "Any Tom, Dick or Harry can set themselves up as an authority and start brainwashing people, as they did in Al Qaeda." None of Al Qaeda's key figures--Bin Laden, Zawahiri or Sayyed Imam al-Sharif--had achieved the level of study needed to legitimize their statements from a religious perspective. Many Al Qaeda members attended small madrassas in Pakistan, such as Darul Uloom Haqqania (Center of Righteous Knowledge).

I pointed out that even some moderate Muslims favored Al Qaeda's Salafist ideology that rejects all Muslim jurisprudence, much of which was issued from centuries of Al Azhar scholars, favoring instead the pure Quran and sunna, the sayings of Prophet Mohamed. A parallel could be drawn to the Protestant Reformation rejecting the Catholic Church which it perceived as straying from the true faith into self-important decadence. Gingerly, I included the criticism that Al Azhar is the tool of the Egyptian government and may not command its former legitimacy.

The sheikh laughed politely. He explained that millions of Muslims around the world know Al Azhar to be one of the greatest universities in Islam. Changing the subject, I asked how the sheikh hoped to find an edge in a competitive media environment.

"Ha, that is why I'm dressed so nicely!" he laughed. (In a suit and rich red tie, I had not been immediately able to identify him as the Sheikh until I noticed the amber-colored prayer beads in his hand.) El Guindy has already recognized the power of new media to communicate with people seeking guidance from him and Al Azhar. He launched a Muslim telephone hotline to which people can call in with questions and appears on multiple television shows: his face is known by millions, if not, prior to our interview, by me.

Yet he knows that it takes more than many hard years of intense study to command respect, because in the case of Bin Laden and media super stars like Amr Khaled, it doesn't even take that. Sheikh El Guindy explains the popularity of such figures through the "void of leadership" in the Muslim world that allows the loudest voices to be heard.

I asked what had prevented moderate Muslim leaders from concerted efforts to make themselves heard in order to prevent extremists from dictating global perceptions of Islam. Sheikh El Guindy explained that "circumstances had prevented Al Azhar from responding to the negative image of Islam until this time." Tatanaki asserted that there had been "no encouragement" and that if such a channel had been launched a few years ago, it probably would have failed.

Obama had provided the necessary encouragement. Tatanaki mentioned how pleased he had been to hear that when Keith Ellison, the first Muslim-American congressmember took the oath to defend the Constitution, he used a Quran that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Yet both men emphasized the necessity of media attention for the success of projects like theirs.

When pundits like Michael Wolff, the founder of Newser, make statements like
Barack Obama Just Changed the World, I can't help but think, no, he didn't. As Obama himself acknowledged, one speech won't. But from Cairo to Berkeley it does seem to be promoting the actions that will change the world, and the attitude that change is possible.