Obama, Francis of Assisi and Egypt
I’ve spent the past few years working on a book (due out in September) about Francis of Assisi’s encounter with the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil, during the Fifth Crusade in 1219. So I’ve followed President Obama’s speech in Cairo in that context.
The research took me to Egypt, where I found both great hospitality and – most people I met worked their way over to this, however graciously – much hostility over the war in Iraq and the president who, as one Egyptian bishop complained, had been so foolish as to call it a “crusade.”
Obama faced much anger – but certainly not more so than Francis, who visited the sultan during a battle in which the Crusaders, having turned down a peace treaty that would have given them Jerusalem, were laying siege to the city of Damietta at the mouth of the Nile, slowly killing nearly all its 80,000 residents. Sultan al-Kamil, probably the most Christian-friendly of any Egyptian sultan, received Francis gently and allowed him to preach.
Francis came away with some revolutionary insights into how Christians could relate to Muslims. Even as the Crusade continued on toward its disastrous conclusion, he proposed that his friars live peacefully among Muslims and “be subject” to them. The tragedy is that Francis, ill and marginalized within his order during the last years of his life, was never able to convince others to join him in seeing Muslims in a new light. The example he tried to show his fellow Christians by going to the enemy unarmed wasn’t heeded at the time.
The response of Americans to Obama’s journey to Egypt is just as important as the reaction the president draws in the Middle East. The text of his speech shows that his remarks were addressed to Muslims. But the simple example of going to Cairo to speak to the Muslim world speaks volumes to Americans. It calls for a new way of relating to the Muslim world – that the default position shouldn’t be suspicion.
Obama was not just speaking to Muslims today. Much of the value of his journey will lay in whether it helps to change the attitudes of his own people.
Update: The Vatican newspaper and Vatican Radio praised Obama’s speech, according to CNS. L’Osservatore Romano said that the speech “went beyond political formulas, evoking concrete common interests in the name of a common humanity.”
Photos: Above, “Francis and the Sultan,” Arnaldo Zocchi, 1909. St. Joseph’s Church, Cairo. Below, Islamic Cairo, the city’s medieval section.