A chair in the middle of the hall: When Obama said Assalamu Alaikum, and everything started

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Tuesday 23 Aug 2022

In 2016, and while the worshippers were finishing their Friday prayers in one of Cairo's mosques, the Imam started praying for the American President Barack Obama. That supplication at the conclusion of the sermon was a surprise to all. Some of the worshipers were less focused, so they started chanting “Amin” before realizing to whom that supplication was. Others were divided between supporters and opponents.


When the preacher was asked: “Why did you bring a non-Muslim foreign leader into the Friday sermon,” the preacher said: “Islam does not forbid that, and Muslims have called for the Negus, the king of Abyssinia, and he was not a Muslim, and President Obama is not a Muslim, but he works for the benefit of Islam, and intends good for Muslims.”

The Negus was a Muslim, and the Messenger (may God bless him and grant him peace) prayed the absentee prayer upon him. Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayah inferred the existence of the independent Negus Muslim state during the time of the Prophet, without merging into the state of the Prophet, on the inevitable political unity of Muslims in a single caliphate and on the legitimacy of the “nation state” in Islam.

The imam’s information was not accurate enough, but he was confident that President Obama was intending well for Muslims, and worthy of supplication on the pulpits.

In 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – under President Trump - delivered a speech to the Muslim world from the American University in Cairo. Despite the wide media coverage of the speech, no one outside the university walls had heard of it. On the other hand, President Obama's speech, which he gave 10 years ago at Cairo University, was one of the most important American texts on Islam. That "historic" speech still represents a prominent event today.

It was fortunate that I received an invitation from the Egyptian presidency, signed on behalf of Cairo University, to attend President Obama's speech that summer of 2009. The invitation was a valuable opportunity to attend that defining moment, and to see what the newspapers would not publish in the university hall.

I left my home in central Cairo much earlier, even though the distance from my house is not far from the university. The fear of procedures and crowds necessitated leaving well before the speech. The first surprise of that day was that the streets were completely empty of pedestrians, in a scene similar to the Egyptian movie ‘The President's Cook,’ when the government vacated the streets while the president was inspecting the lives of citizens, so that he would not see anything.

I thought that the road I took might have had a special situation which called for an evacuation. But President Obama indicated in his memoirs ‘The Promised Land’ that all the streets of Cairo were empty, from the airport to the university to the pyramids to the Sultan Hassan Mosque, and then said: “The difference was amazing between creating the streets of Cairo and crowding the university hall with 3,000 people.”

When I reached the entrance to the university, where I had studied political science years ago, the Egyptian police were more relaxed than I expected. Most of the policemen were in a state of confidence and calm, and they showed the audience that nothing was exceptional, despite the tight security and strict arrangements through four security gates.

As soon as we entered the hall, the telephone network was cut off, but the security officials allowed us to go out to speak, and then return to the hall, without any conditions. There was not a single American security guard at the entrance to the university or the entrance to the Grand Ballroom. Egyptian security succeeded in playing an exemplary role in providing security without being obtrusive.

I got to my seat in the middle of the hall, where I could see the whole scene. The first person I met was the great artist and iconic actor Adel Imam, who made many "serious" jokes about the speech and attendance together. Imam, known lovingly by his fans as “The Leader”, was attentive and present that morning, and the content of his sarcastic words was: "There is nothing new here today, but the celebration itself is new, the event is the party... not what will be said in the party." A number of attendees flocked to take pictures with Adel Imam, and in the meantime, he did not stop his sarcasm.

Next to the Leader sat Sherif Mounir, who was more enthusiastic about the event, and he told me: “We are about to witness a historic event.” The artist's enthusiasm was apparent in his interruptions of Obama’s speech, saying in English, "We love you, Obama.”

After a while, one of the attendees came forward and said to me: “I saw you on your program ‘The First Edition’ attacking Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and challenging his knowledge and patriotism, and I would like to tell you: Dr. Saad Eddin is a great sociologist, and his patriotism is unquestionable. I am Dr. Saad’s brother.”

Next to my seat was the artist Laila Elwi, who asked: “What do you think he will tell us? My friends asked me and I told them: I will go and see.” I told her: “That's a good answer. The first part has been completed and here we are, the second part remains, and we will see shortly.”

A new star in the world of American politics was Mrs. Dalia Mogahed, a member of the Advisory Board on Religious Affairs in the White House. We talked for a while, then she surprised me by saying: "I am from the Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, and my grandmother likes you, and she says that you are a famous person.” I told her: “I am not as famous as your grandmother imagines, but in any case, I play in the local league, and here is the World Cup." Dalia Mogahed shook hands with the Brotherhood delegation, and this was understandable, then she went and shook hands with Gamal Mubarak, and that was understandable as well.

We waited three hours in the ballroom for the speech to begin, long enough for many in the audience to get to know each other. The students of Cairo University and Al-Azhar University were Egyptian and foreign students, and they filled the upper floors of the hall.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, the former director of the Egyptian Intelligence Service and later vice president to Mubarak, General Omar Suleiman, Grand Imam Muhammad Sayed Tantawi of Al-Azhar, and Ali Gomaa, the Mufti of Egypt, were the most prominent attendees from Egyptian institutions.

The Americans in charge of the hall’s stage were very courteous, putting on beautiful music during the waiting hours, including the music of Umm Kulthum, and the music from the ‘Conscience of Abla Hekmat’ series, starring the great artist Faten Hamama, and thus ‘Star of the Orient’ and ‘The Lady of the Screen’ were the main attendees of the American president's speech.

Shortly before President Obama entered, we were approached by Mrs. Hillary Clinton, who was greeted by the audience in the best way. Then appeared President Obama, who garnered massive applause. The first words by President Obama to greet the audience were in Arabic: “Assalamu Alaikum.” This sentence opened the hearts of all attendees, even those who had reservations about the American president.

Then came the three Quranic verses that went beyond softening hearts to melting hearts. President Obama recited the words of God Almighty in Surat Al-Ahzab: “Fear God and speak sound words,” and God Almighty’s saying in Surat Al-Hujurat: “O people, we created you from a male and a female. And We made you peoples and tribes so that you may know each other.” And the Almighty’s saying in Surat Al-Ma’idah: “Whoever kills a soul without a soul or corruption in the land, it is as if he killed all people, and whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the life of all people.”

President Obama completed this "historic" speech with a visit to the Sultan Hassan Mosque, taking off his shoes at the entrance of the mosque. Along came Hillary Clinton wearing a head cover. He repeated in his press conferences: "My mission in front of the Muslim world was to show that America is not an enemy to Islam.”

A short time passed since the historic speech of the American president at Cairo University, then the collapse of the Arab world and the confusion of the Islamic world began. Externally backed extremists have succeeded in stealing a moment of modernity and change.

Some believe that President Obama and his administration were behind the collapse that afflicted the Arab world. But it cannot be reduced to this without scrutiny. Obama supported President Mubarak in the early days, as did Hillary Clinton, and the opinion of then-vice president Joe Biden was that Mubarak should stay, and that what happened cannot be called an Arab Spring. Had it not been for the failure of the Egyptian administration at the time, the favorable odds would not have shifted to another country.

Some outsiders cannot be excused for supporting extremist groups everywhere. However, because we do not own the outside, we own ourselves, and the safe exit from the darkness of the extremists will only be through our will and vision, it is only ours. In major battles, idiots and villains are alike.

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