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A Beacon of Light Threatened by Politics of Darkness, Corruption and COVID-19

A Beacon of Light Threatened by Politics of Darkness, Corruption and COVID-19

Monday, 18 May, 2020 - 04:30

We are familiar with the famous maxim “it is better to light a candle than curse darkness”; but what about a beacon of science, thought and culture that is currently being threatened by dark politics, corruption and a pandemic that has infected millions, claimed the jobs tens of millions and forced hundreds of millions to stay at home throughout the world.


What about a 154-year-old minaret of enlightenment that has led an unprecedented cultural revival in the Arab East, and withstood wars, famines and changing maps? However, it is now being besieged in a lost Middle East, where culture has become barren, minds calcified, hearts emotionless, bellies empty, diversity problematic and accepting political partition a desired option compared to endless disintegration.


What about a western window to the East, and an eastern window to the West, where the great eastern and western cultures merge in its libraries, classrooms and scientific labs, and Islam and Christianity meet, and where openness and tolerance have brought together minorities of all kinds from all over the world?


What about a university, founded by Daniel Bliss, before many of the world’s top universities; and graduated brilliant talents that have occupied top positions all over the world?


The American University of Beirut, which is currently encountering real difficulties, most of which are beyond its control, is not like any other university. Indeed, it is neither just another university, nor an ordinary institute of higher education that follows the American educational system. With AUB, we are talking about is a heritage that is far greater than the identities associated with it; a unique case, unprecedented and unrepeated, whether in the Arab world or in the West.


Since it was founded as the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, AUB has been an ambitious renaissance project. From the beginning, its founders were aware of the importance of applied science and research, which explains why its medical school is one of the most pioneering faculties.


After WWI, the name was changed in the early 1920s to the American University of Beirut. With this, it shed off its early church-related identity and adapted to the changing geopolitical post-war and Sykes-Picot realities. By choosing this practical and realistic name, the university avoided being sucked into the “nationalist” discourse and rhetoric which would dominate the Levant in the following decades.


Indeed, during the following decades, AUB’s beautiful green campus overlooking the Mediterranean, in a Ras Beirut neighborhood, became a confluence of thought and an arena for debate and intellectual exchange. Throughout campus clamored the “Syrian nationalists” and “Lebanonists”, and under its shady trees, “Arab nationalists” preached and Islamists, secularists, Marxists, liberals, clerical conservatives made their voices heard, when logical argument did the talking not submachine guns.


In that “oasis”, as described by the British journalist Michael Adams, great intellectuals lectured and gifted talents learned. There was Constantine Zurayk facing off with Charles Malek. There was Saeed Hamadeh, as well as Hanna Batatu, Walid al-Khalidi and Youssef Ibish. Among its graduates were celebrated poets Omar Abu Risheh and Hafez Jameel and social historian/anthropologist Ali Al-Wardi; there were also the inventor Hassan Kamel al-Sabbah and future world-famous architect Zaha Hadid.


In politics, among AUB’s greats were Fares al-Khoury, Nazim al-Qudsi, Omar al-Saqqaf and Fadhil al-Jamali, as well as Ahmed al-Khatib, Wasfi al-Tall, Haidar Abdul-Shafi, Salim al-Hoss and Saadun Hammadi.


At AUB, women pioneers, like Farida al-Suleiman, Leila Sharaf, Diana Taqieddin, Hanan Ashrawi, Thuraya Arrayed and Sahar al-Sallab studied and graduated.


From outside the Arab world, Afghanistan’s current President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Iran’s ex-foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi and US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, studied and interacted with our society, loving us with temptation or disliking us without pressures.


Such an environment, which is unique in its spiritual and intellectual heritage, is the living opposite of what we are going through right now, whether in Lebanon or in the wider Middle East.


However, this rich heritage is now being threatened by political earthquakes, economic tremors and the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter has compounded concerns and preoccupied those who otherwise could have compensated the losses caused by the Lebanese collapse and the regional failures.


During past difficulties, there were available alternatives and AUB’s large “family” of alumni in the diaspora managed to generously help their alma mater. They did so even during the long Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). The situation is now different because the pandemic and its repercussions have left no place in the world unaffected by health worries, economic downturn, unemployment and bankruptcies.


This is why, last week, AUB took the unusual step of talking openly about its difficulties, to its alumni, the Lebanese, the Middle East and - indeed – everyone who values the university and appreciates keeping it alive as a unique bastion of culture, coexistence and tolerance. In his call, AUB’s president underlined the need to have enough support that would minimize the sacrifice and losses, in terms of staff, students, academic services and standard or medical role, until the world overcomes the current crisis.


Of course, Lebanon is in such a bad situation that it can no longer support an AUB that the country that is indebted to it. The Arab world also has enough problems of its own, more so countries like Syria and Iraq. Even the US, where around 15 percent of the workforce have lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and its economic repercussions, local and national priorities come first, especially since within a few months American will go to polls to vote in presidential and legislative elections.


Thus, the challenge is serious, although I believe that the only way forward is thinking positively, and succeeding in saving AUB and insuring its future…at any price. I say this because any alternative of saving AUB will be frightening. It will also be catastrophic to the intellectual and cultural climate in the Arab East already threatened by the mullah’s aggression, ISIS phantoms of death and “Likudist” expansionism. Finally, it will be more than tragic for the future of enlightenment, tolerance and diversity, as the region turns into a battleground for competing international powers.


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