By Makram Rabah
AUB Faculty United, an association of faculty members at the American University of Beirut, recently named Imad al-Hajj of the department of electrical and computer engineering as the first recipient of the Kamal Salibi Academic Freedom Award.
Coincidentally, the award ceremony was held on May 5, only three days after Salibi’s birthday Kamal Salibi, as many of those in his close circle knew, always avoided the limelight and refused the honors showered upon him by governments and academic institutions. He used to say, “I was brought up in a family that doesn’t believe in such matters.” However it is perhaps fitting that Salibi now lends his name to an award that celebrates his legacy as well as that of other activists, given his quest to uphold academic freedom and to ensure that the challenges faced by faculty and students were adequately addressed.
Early on in his career, Salibi became the faculty adviser to a group of students who had formed the Lebanese Student League, or Rabita al-Toulab al-Lubnaniyya. Rabita students were alarmed by the growing influence of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his brand of Arab nationalism, which they saw as a threat to Lebanese sovereignty and, ultimately, to the AUB. Salibi, however, surprised many when in 1974, after stepping down as an adviser to Rabita, he came to the aid of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian students on campus. At that time, Salibi supported the pro-Fatah faction against the Kirkwood administration.
Salibi, by no means a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization or its politics, felt these students were being treated unjustly by an AUB administration that dealt with their requests in a high-handed manner. Even after the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, Salibi, like many others, remained active to ensure that the AUB remained operational. In an unmatched act of altruism, a majority of the AUB faculty at a certain stage of the war offered to relinquish their pay if it could help ensure the university’s continuity.
While initially Salibi was branded as someone politically on the right, he tried to avoid such characterizations. When Ali Eid, the leader of the Lebanese Alawite community, was stabbed in a bar brawl by a bodyguard of a member of the Saudi ruling family, Salibi led a march to the Saudi Embassy in which a petition was handed to the ambassador objecting to the crime.
In the mid-1980s, Salibi and other faculty members established the AUB Faculty Association. The association was perceived by the administration at that time as an inconvenience that had to be contained. Some in the administration reached out to a Lebanese party-militia in an attempt to bully Salibi and the association. Concurrently, they launched a media campaign accusing Salibi, whose name translates into “crusader,” of harboring pro-Western, “imperialist” sympathies. Following this, Salibi’s close friend, Salim al-Hoss, admitted that he wasn’t able to guarantee his safety and advised him to leave Beirut for a while. Salibi moved to Amman, Jordan.
It is interesting that Salibi opted to leave this incident out of his memoirs, published in 2002. Perhaps he did not want the story to be used against an institution in which he himself clearly distinguished between administrators on the one hand and students and faculty on the other. While Salibi loved and cherished the latter, the former he always viewed with suspicion.
In 1992, Robert Haddad, AUB’s new president infamously declared that faculty members who remained at AUB throughout the war did not have the qualifications to leave Lebanon and thus were forced to stay out of necessity. The reality was completely different. Most of the faculty weathered the storm because they had a duty and an obligation to do so, notions alien to some professional university administrators, Haddad being a shining example.
Even after his retirement and his decision to withdraw from the AUB scene, Salibi came to the aid of fellow faculty members. He did so, for instance, after watching the AUB administration again overstep its boundaries and insult the faculty. On Feb. 26, 2010, Salibi sent an open letter to the AUB faculty objecting to the policy of reappointment issued by the administration: Full professors were required to go through a process identical to the promotion process, a measure deemed by the majority of faculty as unwarranted and unjust.
In his letter, he wrote, “I found it incumbent on me, as a free Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to speak up to the authors of this shameful statement, doing so on behalf of my helpless and long-intimidated colleagues at the AUB.”
AUB has been marked by the contributions of great men and women, students, faculty and staff who helped make this institution a holistic experience rather than just a passageway to a career. In this regard, Kamal Salibi was a trailblazer. Whether as a scholar or activist, he left behind high standards up to which we need to live.
Makram Rabah is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University’s Department of History. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.” He tweets @makramrabah. This commentary was written for THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 16, 2014, on page 7.