The murder of American values in Lebanon
LOS ANGELES — 'America is murdering the values it taught us," my former fellow classmate from the American University of Beirut (AUB) cried out when I visited her in Amman this spring.
Salma's words echoed the pain my family and I had been living with for 22 years, since two unidentified gunmen assassinated my husband on the campus of the American University of Beirut – pain that is reinforced with each day of bombing in Lebanon and Israel and underscored by the many recent deaths in Qana and elsewhere, as well as the insubstantial cease-fire.
"Oh, how I miss Malcolm," Salma said to me, referring to my husband. She was implying that he was an American in a position of influence whom she could trust and who could interpret the Muslim world to the West. "Islam is so distorted and misunderstood – it makes me feel more Muslim than I ever felt before. I feel cornered – drawn inward, mistrusted, and plotted against. American politics is anti-Arab." This came from a woman, now in her 70s, whose early goals in life had been fulfilled when she graduated from AUB and eventually earned her PhD at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Those who shot Malcolm killed not just a man but a set of values he embodied as the president of the American University of Beirut, an institution that had brought ideals of open inquiry and tolerance to the Middle East for more than a hundred years – and had in turn been enriched by the students and professors from the entire region who came to learn and teach there. But American policy in the region was increasingly contradicting American values symbolized by AUB.
Like me, my classmates know how values can fall victim to mindless acts of violence. Soon after the assassination, an anony-mous caller to Agence France Presse claimed responsibility in the name of Islamic Jihad. "How could an Arab have killed Malcolm?" my friends mur-mured at Malcolm's memorial service on the university campus in 1984. "He was a scholar of the Middle East who was born here and loved this country." In those chaotic days of the Lebanese civil war, we had only just begun to hear the name Hizbullah.
This Shiite Islamist movement had spilled over into Lebanon from the Iranian revolution and filled the vacuum left by the forced departure of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organization. In the absence of a strong central government, Hizbullah joined sectarian rivals vying for power in a country that was weak-ened by the meddling of its neighbors, Syria and Israel. Hizbullah claimed the role of defender of Lebanon and the Palestinians against Israel and the United States, while at the same time winning credit among the poor by providing much needed social services and education.
The tragic cross-border fighting of the past few weeks, with both sides unrestrained by the US, has escalated into a war that might engulf the entire region as well as what is left of faith in American ideals in the Muslim world.
"The United States should not be the most powerful nation in the world and the least just," another of my classmates, Naziha, told me in Beirut. "We believed so much in the American values we learned at AUB, and now those are being betrayed."
A Shiite Muslim whose father studied at AUB before her, she understands the tension between the beacon of enlightenment that is America and the tunnel vision that all too often defines our foreign policy. Naziha's two children studied at the university and later earned PhDs in the US, and her daughter returned to teach at AUB. How can this family and others keep their faith in the ideals they have long associated with America when they hear that the US government rushed an order of precision bombs to Israel, which are now being dropped on their city?
Salma and Naziha's present hopes for a bilateral, negotiated two-state solution of the Palestinian-Israeli problem, and their faith that the US could help bring this about, are being smashed with every bomb that falls in Lebanon, Israel, and Gaza. When will we have the courage to stop fighting violence with violence and use our position of power and wealth to promote peace through diplomacy, not militancy?
The bond of 50 years of friendship with my friends from AUB helps me remember Malcolm's true legacy: to cling to those values of American enlightenment that have connected us for so long. Narrow sectarian thinking and rampant violence from whatever quarter can, in the long run, only be corrected by a higher and nobler vision.
• Ann Zwicker Kerr was a student at the American University of Beirut in the 1950s and has recently interviewed six of her former classmates. Her husband Malcolm Kerr was president of AUB from 1982-84 and was assassinated in office.