In October 2020, Carnegie renamed its Middle East Center in honor of Malcolm H. Kerr, an American scholar of the Middle East and former president of the American University of Beirut.
The center will carry on Kerr’s legacy of intellectual honesty, generosity of spirit, and a belief in the promise of the region by continuing to provide a space for the next generation of Arab thinkers to debate, discuss, and write their own future.
Read more about Malcolm Kerr's legacy here.
The Arab Cold War is Malcolm Kerr’s classic study of Egypt’s relations with other Arab nations during the presidency of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, who ruled Egypt from 1956 to 1970 at a time of great tumult and flux. An iconic and complex figure in the Arab world, the charismatic Egyptian leader was renowned for his focus on social justice and pan-Arab unity.
Recently republished by Oxford University Press with a new foreword by Carnegie President Bill Burns and Vice President for Studies Marwan Muasher, The Arab Cold War’s themes are as salient today as they were more than fifty years ago, when it was first published. The book provides a compass to understanding the dynamic forces that have shaped today’s Middle East.Buy the Book
Naming the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut in honor of Malcolm Kerr is deeply fitting. Kerr was in many ways a son of the region—steeped in its history, dispassionate about its problem, but passionate about the potential of its people.
My chief examiner for my Oxford doctorate, Albert Hourani, was also Kerr’s mentor. He introduced me to his scholarship, and it left a big impression on me. As a young American diplomat serving in Jordan when he was brutally murdered in early 1984, Kerr’s example of affirmative American engagement left an equally big impression. He represented America at its best, in a region that all too often saw us at our worst.
Kerr’s work in many ways remains unfinished—but his legacy is more significant than ever. There has never been a more important moment to recall Malcolm Kerr’s example—his intellectual honesty, generosity of spirit, and genuine belief in the promise of a region so often consumed by its dysfunctions. His was a life extraordinarily well-lived, cut tragically short in the war-torn city he loved.
Malcolm Kerr never allowed the region’s troubles to dissuade him—he never ceased to believe in what was possible for the Arab world and the Arab people. The Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center will carry on that legacy—continuing to provide a public space for the next generation of Arabs to debate, discuss, and write their own future.
On a family level, I am thrilled to think that our grandchildren, whom he never knew, can learn about or visit the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center to see in live action something so representative of Malcolm’s hopes for the Arab world.
Making the choice to work in his beloved Lebanon, and for higher education at the American University of Beirut (AUB), was in many ways a simple one for my father, but daily realities took their toll. I remember especially the impact upon him of the death of a twelve-year-old son of a faculty member, following an explosion in the spring of 1983.
My father would have been deeply honored to see his name associated with the work of people dedicated to the question of breaking cycles of violence.
In the years after my dad’s assassination in 1984, I no longer wanted to pay any attention to things related to the Middle East. My work and my research continued to have an international focus, but I started working in places practically everywhere except the Middle East. I found everything related to Lebanon and to inter-Arab politics to be too depressing and too hopeless.
Earlier this year, when I made my first visit to Beirut after 35 years, it was nice to see some familiar people and places, but it was hard to ignore the familiar backdrop. Then, near the end of our stay, when I visited the Carnegie Center in Beirut and learned about its research agenda, I suddenly felt a positive spark again. I was thrilled to meet a group of extremely talented and level-headed researchers who are taking the long view about what the region might become one day, with a research program designed to help achieve their vision. It made me very proud that this is the very reason that they explained for wanting to name the Center after my dad.
He spent a lot of time at that desk, but when he wasn’t, he was with us playing driveway basketball games, picnics at the UCLA pool, or going to the beach. Those memories are all grouped together, the details of each outing blurred, but all are happy, with a few exceptions that my brothers are responsible for!
As all teenagers do, I often thought my parents were clueless, but there were occasional times when my dad seemed to catch up to the rest of the world, or at least that’s how I perceived it. I remember the look of amazement when he tried on a pair of Nike running shoes for the first time. He couldn’t get over how much more comfortable they were compared to the hard leather dress shoes he had worn all his life.
On another such occasion I found him lying on the floor of the living room, eyes closed, wearing a pair of headphones John had bought. He was amazed at how clear Mozart or Bach sounded compared to the cheap, ancient speakers in his study.
It’s nice to know that my dad meant so much to so many people and that he is being recognized for his work. I want them all to know how much he meant to his family and that what he did for us was really his most important accomplishment.
Worse was coming. Days after his arrival, the Lebanese president-elect was assassinated. The Israelis and their Lebanese allies advanced into West Beirut.
I had first contact with them, some hundreds of yards east of the embassy and AUB. I explained what was where, and asked them not to try to enter either compound. I notified Malcolm, who met them alone at Bliss Gate. There were no armed elements inside, he told them. They did not enter. Malcolm spent the rest of that day moving around campus, reassuring students, staff, and faculty, while reaching out by phone to those outside.
We met later in the day. Malcolm was as relaxed as the most leisurely of academics on a late summer day, speaking dispassionately on the possible long-term effects of the events of the day on the university, the country, and the region. It was as though he had always been there. In a sense, he always had.
I had the pleasure of spending more time with Malcolm in the months that followed. I knew him as a brilliant scholar and a gifted administrator. He was also a leader of great courage and compassion. He was murdered on the day I left Lebanon at the conclusion of a tumultuous three-year tour—January 18, 1984.
I teach at Princeton now, courses on Middle East history, politics, and U.S. foreign policy. Malcolm’s monumental book, The Arab Cold War, is required reading. When we discuss it, I am transported through time and distance to that late summer afternoon, and I reflect that Malcolm never really left us.
A number of his published works received wide attention and are always worth revisiting. My favorites are The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 (Oxford University Press) and Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida (University of California Press). He was honored by our guild in different ways and perhaps most visibly when he was elected president of the Middle East Studies Association in 1972. Malcolm Kerr was a courageous scholar and university leader who made it a point of never mincing his words. His commentaries on that region he loved so dearly were always striking and at times could be harsh, but they were deeply rooted in his profound and intimate understanding of its complexity. It is a most fitting tribute to his legacy to rename the Carnegie Middle East Center after Malcolm Kerr.
I last saw Malcolm a few days before he was killed, as I was visiting my parents on Christmas break from Yale. As always, Malcolm took the time to enquire how I was doing and whether I was enrolling in humanities courses in addition to my pre-medical scientific requirements. I told him that having taken Civilization Sequences at AUB, I had “caught the humanities bug” and had both enjoyed and done well in the History of Ancient Greece and Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies. Malcolm was delighted, remarking that great physicians were necessarily first great humanists. His genuine interest in what I was doing was humbling. It was both heartily appreciated and gratefully accepted.
That was Malcolm. There was never anyone more important in the room than the student, professor, staff member, or displaced person he was speaking to. He was one of the most sincere and thoughtful people I have ever met. I could tell how loved he was by students, colleagues, and staff. My late father adored Malcolm and was devastated when he had to inform us of Malcolm’s passing. Malcolm, like my father, taught me to champion the weaker party in every dispute, to strive to create opportunities for those less fortunate. I feel both of their presence with me every day of my presidency of AUB, and I am always profoundly grateful for that.
I knew Malcolm by reputation though. I attended AUB from 1972 to 1976, and left five years before Malcolm became president there. I still remember how excited the AUB community was about his appointment. His reputation as an Arabist and a scholar who cared deeply about the region was stellar.
In essence, Malcolm wrote about the emergence of two then new Arab orders, one political, and the other economic with the oil boom in the 1970s. In The Arab Cold War, he was highly critical of a political order not dependent on pan-Arab unity as much as on personal aggrandizement. He was later equally critical of an economic order starting from the oil boom in the 1970s, which was often occupied with material overspending on useless projects. In time, both these Arab orders crumbled. The old political order collapsed with the advent of the Arab uprisings in 2011, and the economic one quickly followed suit with the decline in oil prices in 2014.
Seen in retrospect, it is clear how much time was lost because of this glaring lack of attention to good governance, political as well as socioeconomic. The Arab world may have changed a lot since Malcolm’s time, and yet in some ways it has not changed at all. More than half a century since the publication of his book, the failure in governance finally led to the Arab Spring, and the one-man or one-party systems coupled with the lack of attention to building effective institutions meant that the vacuum left by the collapse of the old Arab order could only be filled either by religious orders, fanatical actors, or both.
Malcolm’s visionary work more than half a century ago still serves as an inspiration to many who dream of an Arab world that can rise up to its full potential and develop new political and economic orders, guided by good governance and respect for diversity. As head of the Middle East Program at Carnegie, I am privileged to be part of this effort.
I recall a mindset in our embassy at that time, which was just over a decade after the 1948 war, that the AUB faculty was home to harsh critics of American Middle East policy and that there was tension between the embassy and the university. I did not experience this; my responsibility was to develop some skill in speaking and reading Arabic, to take a course at the AUB in Arab history, and not to get diverted into justifying my government’s foreign policy.
There was little social contact between embassy personnel and the university.
Over the years, our contacts were infrequent. His family welcomed our son to their home in Pacific Palisades when we were in transit to Manila after my tour as ambassador to Damascus and he was a professor at UCLA. He found our son amusing, and our son in turn was impressed that, included in the Kerr household, was a pet python named Stella. We were sad and angry when the news came of Malcolm’s assassination in Beirut.
In September of 1982 when he was appointed by the AUB Board of Trustees, the Middle East was in the midst of a very tumultuous time. He had hoped to lead AUB, where he had studied, through this period by virtue of his understanding and acceptance of all the peoples in the region. He was truly respected by all, especially the faculty and students. His aspirations were cut short in January of 1984 when he was assassinated. His death was a shock not only to his family, colleagues, and friends but also the world. The days following were some of the darkest in the long history of AUB and left the university struggling to cope with a very uncertain future. Working in AUB’s corporate office in New York, we tried to make sense of the tragedy and find a way to move forward with the mission of the institution. Strong trustee, faculty, and administrative leadership made that transition possible.
Over the years, the Malcolm Kerr scholarships, generously provided by the Kerr family and friends, have allowed fortunate students to benefit from an AUB education, the values of which Malcolm treasured and defended. His publications give all students the opportunity to understand his critical thinking and learn the value of education and understanding in bringing peace to the region. Even today, this message remains critically important.
As a colleague, Malcolm helped guide me, when I was a newly minted PhD with a special interest in Algeria, into the wider world of Middle East political studies, including the Palestine issue. He was always willing to read a draft of an article, to suggest sources, to introduce me to other scholars, and even to ask me to take on his role of teaching at UCLA during his occasional absences. It was not long before our professional contacts led to a real friendship. That friendship also included Ann Kerr, and seeing Malcolm with her and their children in their beautiful home in Pacific Palisades was always inspiring. I even remember a young Steve Kerr shooting baskets with his dad in their driveway. Little did I then know . . . .
When Malcolm was asked to return to Lebanon to take up the presidency of AUB, he discussed his choice with me, and it was clear that he felt a real calling to accept this challenge. He loved Beirut, he loved AUB, and he was not intimidated by the dangers that were obvious in light of the ongoing conflicts in and around Lebanon. He thought he could make a difference, and he spent his last years trying to protect the institution he deeply cared for from multiple threats.
Nothing could be more fitting than to name a major research center in Beirut in his name. Future generations of Lebanese and Americans will thereby be reminded of a fine scholar, a true friend of Lebanon and its people, and a genuinely decent person who represented the best of what Americans have been able to contribute to the Middle East.
His early work on the political and legal theories of Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Ridā was an attempt to understand Islamic reform. His widely read book on The Arab Cold War went beyond structural and ideological explanations to explore the deeper psychological and personal factors that fueled the great schism in the Arab region under then president Nasser. His co-edited volume, Rich and Poor States in the Middle East, examined the changing dynamics of the emergent new order in the Arab world.
While he was trained by Orientalists whom he respected greatly, Malcolm was not an Orientalist since he saw the Arab world with all its diversity and contradictions. Instead, he helped to de-Orientalize the Middle East—making it less alien and more familiar, less threatening and much more intelligible to the outside world. It is in this sense that he was a bridge builder, a connector, an interpreter between different worlds. Yet, he was not a romantic or an apologist—either for the Arab world or for the United States and its allies. Instead, as an independent thinker, he was an equal opportunity critic. Thus, it is entirely fitting that the Carnegie Endowment’s regional center is named after Malcolm Kerr as the center, too, seeks to bridge different worlds through critical research and scholarship.