(First published in An-Nahar Nov 9, 2018)
Last week, a Halloween party by a group of American University of Beirut students was canceled. The party was titled “Queer Mixer / Speed Dating Night.” After some significant verbal and physical harassment, the students released a communiqué stating that the decision was because their “safety could not be guaranteed.” The next day, undercover security personnel were spread so densely all over campus that one would have thought they were reacting to a bomb threat — except they weren’t — they were trying to identify the organizers.
To its credit, as far as I know, the AUB administration refused to disclose their names. However, I think that AUB missed a chance to take a leadership role in backing this group of students in fighting prejudice and stigmatization. AUB claims that “the university believes deeply in and encourages freedom of thought and expression and seeks to foster tolerance and respect for diversity and dialogue.” Those words are part of its mission statement. The mission also states that “Graduates will be individuals committed to creative and critical thinking, life-long learning, personal integrity, civic responsibility, and leadership.”
As a graduate of this venerable institution founded in 1866, whose motto is “That they may have life and have it more abundantly,” etched boldly on its entrance for all to see, this was disappointing. In this instance, I feel it failed on most of the elements of its own mission statement — it failed in fostering dialogue, freedom of expression, respect for diversity, and did not provide leadership. And if AUB does not take the lead on this, then who will?
When I attended AUB, there were four courses, called Civilization Sequence, that were mandatory for most majors. They were my favorite — more so than the “job-related” courses and a critical part of what made me and my generation what we are today. The first course started with Gilgamesh, the oldest known human manuscript, the Iliad of Homer, and other chefs-d’œuvre. The second course covered the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and the Koran. The third course covered major philosophers like John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. This was where I learned about “Tabula Rasa” (clean slate of the mind) and “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). The final course contained works by the likes of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. This basically gave you an education in some of the major works of the greatest philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and thinkers in the history of humanity. In my mind, that was the most significant part of the education that AUB provided. During the civil war, there was a movement by a small minority of students to cancel these courses, on the grounds that “they started with multiple deities, moved to the presence of a monotheistic god, and concluded with atheism.” Fortunately, and despite the war years providing fertile ground for this type of censorship and closed-mindedness, including the assassination of President Malcolm Kerr on campus, these courses survive today. Despite the odds, tolerance was victorious then.
But not today. The Morality Police stepped in and objected. They objected, not to the absence of 24-hour electricity by the government 28 years after the end of the civil War. Not to the lack of potable water in our taps. Not to the 37% unemployment rate among youth. Not to the $83 billion of debt racked up with nothing to show for it. Not to the ridiculous squabbling over the constituency of another impotent government, while the nation’s economy is collapsing. After being conspicuously absent for these crucial matters, they stepped in on this private and minor issue and declared war on these youngsters, mobilizing the media and security apparatus to crush their dreams and aspirations.
I won’t get into the nature versus nurture debate, nor the morality discourse, and certainly not the religious argument. This has been done profusely in Europe and America over the past decades, culminating in the US Supreme Court decision in 2015, which probably ended the global debate on this topic anywhere that matters. My stance is more pragmatic. Pretty much all of us in this country are minorities in some past or future permutation of alliances. Even a group who in this era may feel invincible, due to their extra-governmental weapons, is actually a minority, just as other minorities, when they were armed, may have had the same illusion of invincibility in years past. My stance is simply to protect these students because protecting them is protecting us … from someone coming in and questioning our own right to exist.
As Martin Niemöller said over half a century ago:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”