On April 9, Marwan Muasher, Carnegie’s vice president for studies, gave a lecture at the America University of Beirut, organized by the University for Seniors, on his time at the university. Muasher is a member of the AUB Board of Trustees, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister and foreign minister, and author of The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism (Yale University Press, 2015), as well as The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation (Yale University Press, 2009). Diwan publishes below an edited and abridged version of that lecture, along with a selection of photographs that Muasher showed to his audience.
I came to the American University of Beirut (AUB) as a freshman student from Jordan 47 years ago, raw in my thinking and eager to absorb everything that great institution had to offer. My father had graduated from AUB in 1942. My wife, siblings, and extended family all went to AUB. I can proudly claim that the AUB spirit runs through my entire family.
AUB not only offers a world-class education, it also develops people able to deal with the complexities of daily life and excel in whatever they choose to do. More importantly, it instills in graduates a sense of purpose and a commitment to serve the region. What I learned at AUB, both intellectually and in terms of its system of values, served me at every step of my diverse career—as engineer, ambassador, minister, development official, journalist, and academic.
One of the first things I learned at AUB is the power of diversity. Having come from a relatively sheltered environment, I mingled not only with students from Lebanon, but also from Syria, the Gulf, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, each with his or her different political and religious outlooks. In fact, during the early 1970s expatriates constituted almost half of the student body. And while Lebanon’s escalating political tensions sometime led to violent clashes on campus, we were all learning to appreciate our different backgrounds, listening to different points of view, and channeling the political, cultural, and religious diversity in constructive ways, even if that learning process took place gradually and continued long after we had graduated.
My generation, as well as those who came before and after me, learned that truths are not absolute. They are relative, as opposed to the absolute truths we were taught in school and society. We realized at AUB that there was a need for critical thinking. I studied electrical engineering but was able, thanks to the university’s commitment to the liberal arts model, to take electives in the humanities—the arts and social sciences. As a young man, I was very interested in Christianity. I took an elective course titled “The History of Christianity,” taught by a Swiss priest named John Montegu. In the first session he surprised us all: “If you are here to learn about Christianity as a faith, I suggest you drop the course. I am here to talk to you about the history of the religion. I cannot help you with the faith part. That is up to each one of you.”
To hear a priest say that left a lasting impression on me. It led me to approach all issues with a critical eye, to never accept anything at face value but instead to always ask questions, probe, look for different points of view. How many universities in the Arab world can credibly claim to impart this to their students?
I studied electrical engineering largely as a result of parent and peer pressure. Once I belatedly realized I did not want to have a career in it, I took deliberate and gradual steps to pursue a different path over time. It was the liberal arts experience I received at the AUB that prepared me to do so. I was in a position to adapt to changing circumstances. I can even trace the transformation taking place inside me to my freshman year, when I took two required courses in Arabic, taught by Professor Nadim Naimy, who is still teaching at AUB today. It was the first time I was exposed to the history of the region, taught critically and through a philosophical mindset. The Arab world’s history was not presented as an account of individual leaders, so common in our school systems, but rather through the ideas put forward by its thinkers. It was here that I truly discovered my roots, my language, my history, and it was thanks to that course that the seeds of wanting to serve the region were planted in me.
At no time has this quality of education—unmatched anywhere else in the Arab world—been more important for the future of the region—not only for it to survive, but also to thrive. The Arab uprisings, which began in 2011, glaringly showed why the status quo could no longer be sustained. For decades Arab governments had shown scant attention to good governance, social equity, economic prosperity, and the equal treatment of citizens. Stability, imposed by brute force rather than through the consent and contentment of citizens, had to crumble, and it did.
But street protests on their own do not necessarily lead to inclusion, democracy, and prosperity. The Arab world faces a long road toward achieving these goals, a road that must include a process of agreement over new social contracts, real institution building, and the development of systems of checks and balances that ensure that no single arm of government can abuse power and dominate other aspects of the state. Such a future, which appears totally utopian today, will not be reached through wishful thinking. Moderation, inclusion, and respect for diversity are not values with which people are born. We need decades of hard work before such values are enshrined in the hearts and minds of future generations.
At the heart of this effort is the need for a new educational system. This should not be one that merely focuses on math and sciences, but also, and more importantly, that creates a humanities mindset that reinforces moderation, inclusion, and respect for diversity on a daily basis. This cannot be done simply by introducing new curriculums, but will also involve adopting different, more inclusive methods of teaching and more open and inclusive school environments.
For far too long Arab children were taught that diversity is a source of weakness, and that differences had to be suppressed in the service of larger goals. These goals were usually associated with the interests of the ruling elite rather than the wellbeing of society as a whole. Children were taught to think monolithically and in a one-dimensional way. Critical thinking was not valued. Teachers could not be questioned. Books could not be challenged. Truths were almost always absolute rather than relative. Whole generations were raised on the notion that allegiance to one’s country meant allegiance to a party, system, or leader, while diversity, critical thinking, and differences of opinion were almost treasonous.
As the Middle East underwent its first renaissance movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, AUB played a central role in helping to provide an intellectual framework and training for future leaders in the region. The university’s faculty continued to be at the forefront of propagating ideas for a better Arab world.
I remember these words:
“A progressive society is one which is harmonious, where all citizens enjoy equal opportunity, where no individual or group monopolizes another because of birth, heritage, gender, or any other claimed difference, as all individuals are at their core equal in their citizenship and humanity.”
These are the words of Constantine Zureik, a prominent Arab intellectual and a professor of history at the AUB. They were written 57 years ago, as he urged the Arab world to adopt modern civil structures and emancipate itself from foreign domination and stagnant societies. Zureik was still at AUB when I joined and his late daughter, Ilham, taught me physics at the university.
The principal fight in the Arab world today should not be one between liberals and conservatives, between secularists and the religious. It should also not be simply a battle against despotic rule. It is fundamentally a battle for pluralism—one in which everyone has the right to their peaceful views, practices, and lifestyles, where no one can impose his or her views or lifestyles on others. Without the commitment to pluralism, none of the other goals of freedom, dignity, and social justice can be achieved. An AUB graduate should never lose sight of that goal, and never underestimate his or her ability to help realize it.
To accelerate this process of change, the region desperately needs agents of change. And yet today it lacks individuals who can provide the vision, leadership, and moral values necessary to promote such liberal values. For a variety of reasons a Nelson Mandela, a Mahatma Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King Jr. has not emerged in the region. And yet we cannot wait for such leaders to appear before we embark on this process of change for a better Arab world.
That is why AUB’s role is so important. Its ideals, values, and graduates today constitute a collective depository of intellectual and moral power that can help contextualize the Arab uprisings within an intellectual framework. The university can direct a new generation to believe in this region, remain in it, and provide it with the necessary skills so that the transition from protests to nation building becomes possible. AUB played precisely such a role during the first liberal era of the contemporary Arab world, and I see few, if any, other institutions capable of playing such a role during the second Arab Awakening. There is no reason why AUB cannot serve as a collective Mandela, Gandhi, or King.
My last year at AUB was a difficult one. In 1975 the Lebanese civil war began and we lost professors and classmates. We saw the city that we loved collapse before our eyes. Classes were continuously disrupted. We had hot water once a week. Even bread was sometimes difficult to find. The assassination on campus in February 1976 of the dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, Raymond Ghosn, and the dean of students, Robert Njaimy, left a lasting imprint on my mind. A month later, in March, a Lebanese army general, Aziz al-Ahdab, staged a short-lived coup against then-president Suleiman Franjieh. Classes were disrupted again. Together with a group of friends, I left for the airport and took the first available flight out—to Damascus—and from there rode by car to Amman. We thought that the war would represent a short interregnum before classes resumed. Instead, I was not to return until 26 years later. The innocence of my years at AUB had been suddenly and prematurely stolen away.
In 2002, when I returned as Jordan’s foreign minister to attend the Beirut Arab summit, the driver took a different, unfamiliar road from Beirut airport than the one I had taken back in 1976. There was a highway now, a reminder that the city I had known was changed beyond recognition. That is until I went to visit AUB. The university and its surroundings had not changed much, and not only physically. AUB was still toiling, and despite the immense pressures it had undergone during the civil war—the abduction and death of students, faculty, and staff, including its president, Malcom Kerr, the destruction of College Hall—AUB, my AUB, the AUB I knew, was there. It was evident that the university had lost some of its student diversity, but it was still developing generations of leaders and critical thinkers. Walking through the AUB gate brought me the serenity and closure I had been searching for all those years. AUB had not just survived the war; it was thriving, growing, and expanding its own horizons as well as those of its graduates.