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IMEY Researcher Meets Imam Tantawy to Discuss Middle East Youth Issues

Pakistan visit
(Left to right) Sheikh Muhammad Qudutb Khudair, Ed O'Connell, and Grand Imam Sheikh Muhammad Sayid Tantawy

July 2006 — IMEY researcher Ed O'Connell obtained a rare audience with Grand Imam Sheik Muhammad Sayid Tantawy at the Al-Azhar Institute in Cairo, Egypt, on June 26 to discuss RAND's initiatives regarding Middle East youth. Al-Azhar is the world's oldest university and has been considered the greatest learning center for Muslims worldwide since it was first built by the Fatimid dynasty (the Fatimids were of Shia belief) in the 10th century A.D. When the Ayyuvids took over Egypt, they turned Al-Azhar into a school that taught the Sunni understanding of Islam. Imam Tantawy, as the top scholar in the Sunni Muslim world, follows a line of shuyukhul, or Grand Imams, dating back to the mid-17th century.

O'Connell discussed plans for a second RAND Horizons of Hope for Middle East Youth Conference and solicited the Imam's assistance. The first Horizons of Hope Conference was held in Washington, D.C., last fall and was coordinated by Cheryl Benard, O'Connell, and Lisa Johnson, all three representing RAND's Initiative on Middle East Youth (IMEY), and sponsored by RAND's Center for Middle East Policy Director, David Aaron. During their meeting, Imam Tantawy praised RAND's initiatives on Middle East youth, saying, "We all need to do more in this area." More importantly, he expressed his intention to send one of his top scholars (muftis) to address the upcoming forum, and suggested it be held in the Middle East.

O'Connell and Imam Tantawy also discussed the situation in Iraq, and the implementation of the Sharia code. The Imam discussed insights from the World Conference of Islamic Scholars in Indonesia, from which he had just returned. He also told O'Connell that he had taught at Basra University in Iraq during the early 1970s, and had a keen appreciation of the challenges the Iraqi people confronted.

At the end of their meeting, Imam Tantawy presented O'Connell with a volume on the history of Al-Azhar, commemorating the institute's 1,000-year anniversary.