IMAGINE the Middle East decades from now. Do you picture a family of prosperous, enlightened states living in freedom, happiness, and peace; or a barren wasteland, bereft of community, culture, and hope? Most of us, given our innate cognitive biases, will envision a higher-tech but depressingly similar version of the circumstances we see today—a continuation of unfulfilled potential among our youth; lives blighted by wars and chronic insecurity, environmental degradation, government corruption, inequality, and poor health. This middle-lane vision of a future Middle East actually represents to me the most unlikely possibility of the aforementioned three. If we continue along this path, repeating the same mistakes, I believe this region is heading to a much bleaker scenario.
The COVID-19 outbreak has sounded a global alarm bell that we are running out of road to avert catastrophe, not just in our region, but globally. The speed and pathology of the pandemic has taken even advanced societies by surprise, exposing the fragility of economic and educational systems and our ill-preparedness to safeguard the health and futures of the most vulnerable. In Lebanon, home of the American University of Beirut (AUB), the impact of coronavirus is just one of a succession of body blows, the appalling August 4 explosion in the port Beirut being just the latest, albeit the most catastrophic. We were already in the existential post-COVID headspace, knowing what it is like to inhabit a world turned upside-down.
Set against these vicissitudes, AUB has always devoted itself to the long-term development, improvement, and lifting up of society, through excellence in education and nurturing leadership. AUB’s founding president, Reverend Daniel Bliss, encapsulated our ethos when he said, “We were not anxious to appear great, but we were anxious to lay foundations upon which greatness could be built”. I could write at length about our 19th century American founders who came to a neglected Mediterranean as Protestant missionaries, but went on to espouse evidence-based inquiry and—perhaps America’s greatest invention—liberal arts education. In doing so, they ushered in a broader transformation, rippling out from the intellectual and scientific center that Beirut became in AUB’s shadow to reach the entire Arab world and beyond.
“If we discuss humanity’s need to wake up to the lessons of COVID-19, AUB’s history of impact also validates our right to dream of a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable world that the academy is capable of creating.”
Every university sends out waves of fresh graduates who are enriched through professional qualifications and the life lessons learnt from other students and professors. Few outside AUB can boast an experience that also includes meeting and befriending peers whose parents may have stood on opposite sides in a brutal, sectarian civil war. As we consider ways to keep alive the student experience while protecting against the coronavirus, we remain acutely aware it is on our campus, not Zoom, where students lose their fear of the other, where they become emancipated from the dead hand of entrenched sectarian politics still gripping this nation and causing most of its miseries.
AUB is the microcosm that shows Lebanon can cast off the yoke of corrupt, sectarian rule. The tragedy of August 4 shows emancipation must come soon. And if Lebanon can make that change, so can every country ruled by an unaccountable elite that trades transparent governance for the public good with personal venality and embezzlement. Do prosperity, happiness, and peace lie around the corner in the Middle East? No, but today and every day we lay the foundations for such a transformation and therefore—even in the most desperate times—we arm ourselves with faith and hope for a better tomorrow.
Dr. Fadlo R. Khuri is the 16th president of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and professor of medicine at the Faculty of Medicine and Medical Center. Khuri is an accomplished molecular and translational oncologist, having authored over 750 publications, he serves as Editor in Chief of the journal Cancer. Khuri has helped obtain grants and donations for underprivileged students and patients for over $250 million. Under Khuri’s leadership, AUB has reintroduced academic tenure and initiated several new PhD programs.