NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R ecent events in America’s newsrooms have shown that left-wing radicalism extends beyond our universities. But is the United States inadvertently sponsoring a more nefarious campus radicalism abroad? Each year, the U.S. sends millions of dollars to the American University of Beirut (AUB), a liberal-arts institution founded by Protestant missionaries in 1866 and based in Lebanon’s capital. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius recently argued that it is in America’s “moral and strategic interest” to support the AUB. Yet the university’s contemporary record raises serious questions about the wisdom of continuing to provide such support.
In recent years, the AUB has been accused of providing material aid to Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization at odds with U.S. interests. Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia group, is the political kingmaker in Lebanon. It is also responsible for international terrorism — including attacks on U.S. military personnel and Jewish communities worldwide — and war crimes committed in support of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, violence for which it now faces new U.S. sanctions under the Caesar Act. From 2007 to 2016, the American University of Beirut allegedly provided material support to Hezbollah in the form of media training granted to reporters from two Lebanese outlets under U.S. sanctions for their ties to the group. It also provided a link to a Hezbollah-affiliated NGO, Jihad al-Binaa, in an online database. The AUB paid $700,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that in both cases its actions had violated the terms of its USAID grant. (As of 2018, USAID had granted the AUB at least $66 million.)
As a result of political turmoil in Lebanon and the economic repercussions of COVID-19, the AUB is now facing severe financial difficulties. The university’s president, Fadlo Khuri, issued a personal plea for donations in a May interview with Arab News, explaining that the pandemic represented an existential crisis. He has already announced plans to dismiss 25 percent of the university’s staff. In response, Ignatius has called on the United States to rescue the AUB from financial oblivion. But should it?
Ignatius’s article echoes a long-standing dream that Lebanon could one day become a moderate American ally. The AUB was once the sole purveyor of an American-style university curriculum in the Middle East, home to scholars who sought to promote liberal education and thought. In 1871, Daniel Bliss, the university’s founding president, gave a speech touting its diversity:
This College is for all conditions and classes of men without regard to color, nationality, race or religion. A man white, black, or yellow; Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four, or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or no God.
This golden era, in which students from all over the Middle East and beyond flocked to Beirut for an American education, did not last long, as I have previously noted. Soon, the university became the intellectual hub of a pan-Arab nationalist movement that was pro-Soviet and hostile to the United States. At the height of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s, the campus fell prey to anti-American terrorist activity. In the span of two years, one president was kidnapped and taken to Iran while another was murdered on school grounds. The AUB is still painted by supporters in the Middle East and the United States as an embodiment of the American, liberal values it was founded on. But it has changed, as institutions do.
Today, there are no Jews at the college. Indeed, any contact with Israelis, who make up roughly 45 percent of the world’s Jews, is forbidden by law in Lebanon. A lawsuit was filed against the American University of Beirut last year when a prospective online student found that the university did not list “Israel” as a nationality on its enrollment page. The AUB’s charter and accreditation are filed in the State of New York, which could make this a violation of U.S. state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
What about the AUB’s teachers and teachings? The university has an American Studies department with a chair endowed in the memory of the Arab–American scholar Edward Said. Venerating Said is not itself unusual, given that many professors in the United States still teach Orientalism, his critique of the Western academy’s treatment of the global East, as a foundational text. But those whom the university has selected to hold the chair that bears his name should give us pause. From 2015 to 2017, Steven Salaita occupied the Said Chair. Salaita had previously made headlines when the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign withdrew his tenure-faculty appointment after he was found to have issued a series of incendiary tweets relating to Israel and the Palestinians, including one that read, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948.” Before Salaita, the chair had been held by Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor with a long history of harshly criticizing Israel and American counter-terrorism policy who had expressed support for the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Though private institutions can teach what they want and hire whom they want, the U.S. should not pursue the worthy goal of liberalizing the Middle East by underwriting illiberal universities. Foreign-affairs expert Robert Kaplan has argued that American Arabists — the military attachés, diplomats, scholars, and intelligence agents whose work brings them to the region — are concerned less with political power than with “good deeds.” But good deeds do not always make for good policy. If the American University of Beirut has become American in name only, it no longer deserves America’s support.