Scholar illuminates activism in Beirut

Wake Forest welcomed Betty S. Anderson, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at Boston University, on Feb. 2.

A three-time published author, Anderson came to campus to discuss her new book The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education.

This book details a tumultuous tale of Arab student activism within the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) liberal education setting.

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Professor Anderson explains that she wrote the book just as the Arab Spring began because despite the multiple articles regarding the different movements in the Arab world, student activism was still unaddressed.

“Student activism in the 21st century taps into the notion of identifying different authority figures students no longer wish to follow and coming together to remold a campus in order to fit their ideologies,” Anderson said

Founded by American missionaries in 1866 as a Syrian Protestant college in Beirut, Lebanon, AUB’s initial goal was to provide the most modern liberal education within a structured Christian campus which required daily chapel and Bible classes.

The student body is composed of fifty percent native Lebanese students alongside significant numbers of students representing most, if not all, of the Arab nations.  This diverse population of Arab students created a Universalist Arab identity unique to AUB.

Anderson’s speech chronologically detailed the most significant instances of student activism in AUB.

“The student body has always been very much embedded in the political atmosphere surrounding the college,” Anderson said.

“Every single event that happened in the Arab world had resonance within the AUB student body because they were representatives of all Arab countries.”

According to Anderson, the first Arab student movement to ever occur was the 1882 student demonstration at AUB.

The protest took place in response to the forced resignation of a university professor after he gave a lecture on Charles Darwin, whose theories on evolution were believed to challenge religion.

Repeated student protests that argued that the school’s promise of a modern liberal education was not being upheld did not sway the administration, but caused the students to assume an activist attitude.

In 1909, during the Young Turk Revolution in which the Young Turks fought against the censorship of the ruling Ottoman Empire, the AUB students mimicked the same ideals and challenged the administration.

“The students rebelled against the Christian rules on campus arguing that the university was not teaching what it was preaching or in other words it was not delivering a real liberal education that did not impose its ideas and left room for debate.”

The 1948 declaration of Israel as a nation and the resulting Arab-Israeli Conflict triggered an uproar from the Arab community, especially the Arab student body of American University of Beirut.

Students protested what Israel had done to Palestine and worked to create a very Universalist view of the Arab world.

“The students were saying ‘This is how we as Arabs come together regardless of which country we come from,’” Anderson said.

With the 1954 Baghdad Pact– an Anti-Soviet pact sponsored by the United States– the students rose up again in the largest protest the campus had ever seen.

“Campus became their battlefield for demonstration and their arena for negotiations,” Anderson said.

During the Vietnam War, with the prominence of student activism worldwide (Berkeley, Paris, Columbia) the AUB students established Speaker’s Corner, an area for student debate over political issues which were freely and fairly conducted.

“These were debates that students felt could not be conducted in a classroom so they created a space for them.”

With the formation of the Black September Organization– a Palestinian paramilitary group founded in 1970– AUB students protested in favor of the Palestinians.

Students had particular concerns within the university that were reflections of what was happening in the outside world, Anderson explains.

In the midst of the Lebanese Civil War of 1974, the students occupied campus.

They informed the school that it needed to be the place where they could engage the political world and so it must transform to meet student needs.

Anderson noted, “This was the first time that Lebanese politics seeped into campus and started breaking down the Universalist attitude.”

After detailing all this tumult and student activism found in the history of AUB, Professor Anderson concluded, “The American University of Beirut is a place that could not have existed without the idea of American education with freedom of speech and of action.”

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