Students, faculty and staff of AUB; alumni and friends of AUB; ladies
and gentlemen. Welcome to you all.
The beginning of a new academic year should be a time of excitement and
high expectations. This new academic year is no exception. Our students
are here in record numbers; our faculty is assembled. Our classrooms and
laboratories are ready to support our academic mission. Our campus is
as beautiful as ever, looking out on the same calm, blue Mediterranean
that the ancients knew and revered.
Yet we all feel, in varying degrees, uncertainty, confusion, anger, sorrow,
and even fear. And well we should. But, my friends, my message today is
that it is precisely in such times as these that the university must rise
to meet the occasion, to assert itself as the place to seek understanding,
to examine and debate the issues, to explore the bases of our fears and
apprehensions, to try--above all to try--to bring clarity of thinking
and some sense of moral order to a world that sometimes defies comprehension.
It was not so long ago that we were celebrating the millennium, dreaming
of a new era loaded with the potentialities that a technological and informatics
revolution has engendered. Our biggest global problem only a year and
a half ago was the Y2K challenge. That challenge was at least a challenge
worthy of a new era. But what the last year has brought are crises that
smell more of the dark ages than of a new age of enlightenment.
A year ago, I stood here on the same occasion only a few days after the
beginning of the second intifada. We did not know then just how ghastly
would be the development of the conflict in the occupied territories,
but I knew that the events then unfolding took precedence over messages
of good cheer and institutional happiness at the beginning of a new year.
What have we seen in these past twelve months? We have seen images and
scenes wildly different in outward appearance but linked profoundly in
their essence. We remain riveted by the image of Muhammed al-Durra and
his father, pinned down by Israeli fire for hours before finally being
killed. We saw slow death of an innocent child. We saw the remains of
the swift and violent deaths of many Israelis at a Pizza Hut in Jerusalem
at the hands of a suicide bomber. We saw Israeli helicopter gun ships
hovering over the cities of the West Bank, unleashing massive fire power
against targets in areas inhabited by Palestinian civilians. Then, only
a few weeks ago, we had the vivid images of an event never before witnessed--two
commercial jet airliners crashing into two of the tallest buildings on
earth, the workplace of over 50,000 people.
We often speak of "the street" in this part of the world, the
people, the sha'ab, the average working folks so often overlooked by their
own governments. Well, my friends, the word from the street is disquieting.
Not long ago I read that 75 percent of Israelis polled approve of state-sponsored
assassination. I read that 75 percent of Palestinians polled approve of
suicide bombers. And now, last week, I read that 92 percent of Americans
polled approve of a war, even at the cost of thousands of US casualties.
Welcome to the 21st first century. Welcome to the millennium.
These scenes of carnage and horror raise profound moral and philosophical
questions. Is one kind of death more worthy or more shocking than another?
Is the slow personalized death of Muhammed al-Durra more or less deplorable
than the sudden and mass deaths of the thousands in the Trade Center?
The media are full of the question: What is a terrorist? Should we also
not ask, "What is an innocent civilian" Are any of us here today
innocent? Most of us would concede that a child is intrinsically innocent.
But when does a child cease to be a child? When do we civilians cease
to be innocent? It may be that in a globalized, inter-connected world,
no adult can plead innocence; no adult can say, "I didn't know."
My friends, in the long run, that loss of innocence, that interconnectedness,
may be the ultimate significance of globalization, and I for one welcome
Let AUB be a center for discussing and debating these issues--not just
our philosophers, historians, and political scientists, but everyone,
everywhere in our academic institution. These are not questions for specialists.
These are questions for us all. It is to seek understanding of such issues
that universities exist in the first place. I urge my colleagues, I urge
students and their clubs and associations, to be active in engaging these
questions. Let us be a forum in which those within our walls and those
outside them can try to make sense of the unnerving challenges facing
I want to shift focus for a moment and ask you to be, with me, a distant
witness to events of September 11. I was in the United States at that
time. In fact, I was in Princeton, New Jersey where I resided for many
years and where I still have a home. I frequently take the train from
Princeton to New York to go to AUB's office in mid-town Manhattan. I generally
take the 6 am train from Princeton, arriving in Pennsylvania Station in
New York a little after 7 am.
It was an interesting train, filled with commuters to businesses and jobs
in New York. Over the years the background of the passengers has changed,
with growing numbers of Indians, Chinese, Hispanics, and, indeed, Egyptians
and Lebanese, gradually displacing the older pattern of those of Italian,
Irish, and other European backgrounds. Despite all the different physical
features, most passengers are fairly young, typically in their 30s and
40s, well educated, many with MBAs or law degrees. They are the so-called
dot com generation, moving up the ladder in the financial services sector
of Manhattan. Whatever their background they read professional journals
or they work on their laptops as the train proceeds toward New York.
After Princeton there is New Brunswick, home of Rugters University, where
our own Imad Nuwayhid is spending the year. Many people get on there;
then Edison and Metuchen, where passengers of Indian extraction board,
and the train proceeds through Elizabeth, where I was born, and then to
Newark where much more than half the passengers get off. At Newark these
passengers board a special train that takes them directly to the World
Trade Center in Manhattan.
The morning of September 11 was beautiful; it was clear, dry, and a little
bit cool. As the train left Newark, having let off half its passengers
to travel on to the World Trade Center, it goes across the meadowlands,
wide flat marshes. Across the marshes the skyline of Manhattan was silhouetted
in the rising sun. I anticipated a wonderful day in the city. I took the
subway from Pennsylvania Station to the corner of Lexington and 51st Street.
I walked by the fire department on the same street. The firemen, big,
beefy men, sometimes not in the best physical shape, were standing around
in front of the station, drinking coffee and sharing jokes and banter.
At 8 am I began a meeting in the AUB office. At around 9 am Eileen O'Connor,
who manages that office, interrupted my meeting to tell me that a plane
had crashed into one of the trade towers. The fire alarms began to sound
immediately, and I could hear the fire trucks pulling away from the fire
station to head downtown. As all of us in the office sought for news,
the second plane struck. You all know the rest of the story.
Late in the afternoon of the 11th I was lucky to catch one of the few
trains allowed to leave New York. The train was packed with dazed and
silent passengers standing and sitting on top of one another. The train
came out of a tunnel that runs beneath the Hudson River, and we were once
again moving across the marshes toward Newark. Manhattan lay to our left
across the marshes. All the passengers, knowing what they would see if
they looked left, looked in the opposite direction. No one spoke. I thought
to myself that the train I had taken that morning was the train of death.
The next morning I returned to Manhattan. I walked by the same fire department.
It had lost ten of its men in the rescue effort. I passed fire trucks
covered in grey ash and dust. Some firemen stood in front of the station
looking shaken and exhausted. They too were covered in grey ash and dust.
About five days later, when international air travel resumed, I headed
for Kennedy Airport by car to come back to Beirut. About two miles from
Princeton there is a mosque on Route One, also the headquarters of the
Muslim Association of Central New Jersey. As I went by the mosque I saw
that its faithful had hung a large American flag on the outer wall. There
were two police cars parked in the parking lot. Not far from that mosque
there is a large Egyptian Coptic church. Between the two is one of the
largest automobile dealerships in New Jersey--Malouf's. These manifestations
of religion and commerce, of new blood and ancient cultures, have become
fully part of our lives in New Jersey. I remember talking to a state policeman
who every year had to guide the heavy traffic coming to the mosque for
the 'Id al-Adha. Over the years he learned a good deal about the great
Islamic feasts, the times of prayer, and the proper behavior of men and
women. There was nothing unusual or exotic about it so far as he was concerned;
it was simply part of the job and part of life in central New Jersey.
Why do I tell you all this? I am not exactly sure myself, but I think
it is because all these events and scenes that we have witnessed from
near or from far make me feel our common links, our shared fears and hopes,
our common humanity. These scenes and acts are not senseless, not random,
not without cause. When we realize that the violence and terror are not
blind, not inexplicable, that no matter how tangled and twisted the roots,
they can be traced back to real situations and real grievances, then our
common plight will become clearer. Some part of all of us was with Muhammed
al-Durra under fire; some part of all of us was with those well educated
commuters from all parts of the globe who went off to work and off to
I come back almost to where I began--to the university and its role and
obligations in these circumstances. Remember the words of Ecclesiastes
"To everything there is a season:
a time to keep silence
and a time to speak
a time to love
and a time to loathe
a time of strife
and a time of peace"
The sacred texts tell us that it is human to hate, human to crave revenge,
indeed, human to kill. But a university, like a mosque, or a church, or
a temple must lift us above our humanness and connect us to our humanity.
A university, this university can never condone, no less encourage blind
appeals to violence, vengeance, and hate. It must constantly remind the
humans who live in it and around it of their humanity. In this world where,
for good or ill, we are one, if we are tempted to protest our innocence,
to ask, "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?" at those moments,
let us recall the pledge and the promise, old as human kind: "I am
my brother's keeper"--and, might I add, "my sister's keeper"
AUBites and friends, in my office in College Hall I have hung a beautiful
example of Arabic calligraphy. It contains a very good piece of advice.
It is probably significant that I have hung that piece of advice behind
my desk where I do not see it and thus occasionally ignore it. It is from
a hadith, attributed to the Prophet, may the peace be upon Him. It says:
According to Abu Huraira, a man said:
"O Prophet of God. Counsel me, but do not heap words upon me lest
I forget." The Prophet said, "Do not get angry."
A university is not just a place to make a living. It is not just a place
to acquire the skills to make a living. It is a joyful responsibility.
Let us step away from our desks and computers and recommit ourselves to
that lofty task.
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