Edward Said: AUB Commencement Speech, 2000

Edward Said’s speech at my graduation, on June 28, 2000, was the most formative experience I went through at university. He opened my eyes to where we as Arabs stand in the world today, and how we can engage with the West. The text used to be posted on AUB’s website but got lost in the redesign. There are references to it from a newspaper report and that is still viewable here. I could not find public records of it anywhere public, but luckily I had posted the full text on my blog many years ago. I am posting it here again so that this important text is not lot to posterity.

“The graduating classes today are about to leave this university and enter the domains that AUB has prepared them for. Some of you will become engineers, physicians, architects, nurses, social workers, others will start immediately to earn your living in other fields, and still others will go on to get advanced degrees in one of the natural sciences, the humanities, or the social sciences. Whichever is the case, this is a crucial moment in your young lives, full of promise, some apprehension, and perhaps , along with the satisfaction of earning a degree, some regret at not having done quite what you wanted to do. But there is no use letting what might have been undermine what you can still do, with the energy of youth and an excellent education to propel you forwards. 

But the American University in Beirut, and Lebanon itself, are not ordinary places and you are not just graduates. It is a remarkable institution and you have been living in a city literally drenched in historical and cultural significance. You have emerged, as this country has, from a devastating period of civil war, into a moment of uncertainty and conflict, even though of course South Lebanon has been brilliantly liberated from Israeli occupation, with what seems to be a new situation developing all around us. What is very difficult for others to understand about us as Arabs, especially for many Americans whose history is relatively short, is that we belong to an old people, whose thousands of years of history, made up of an accumulation of many different civilizations, languages and traditions, still weighs heavily on us, and which it would be the height of folly and irresponsibility for us to forget or pretend to be able to sweep away and begin again. Nevertheless, we cannot allow all our history as Arabs in this region, where conquerors and colonizers have come and gone, to weigh too heavily on us, and make us victims of our past. Nor, on the other hand, can we accept the idea put forward by today’s policy-makers in America and elsewhere, that they can impose solutions on us that suit their interests but not those of the many people who live in this region and have very different ideas.

I think we are in that quite complicated situation today and so I want to speak to you about how as recent graduates of the American University of Beirut you have a special role to play in what I would like to call not the clash of civilizations but rather the dialogue of civilizations, that is, a peaceful but critical dialogue between equals, rather than a belligerent screaming match between the more powerful and the less powerful.

There have been two main models that govern relationships between Arabs and the West, specially the United States. Both models, I believe, are quite imperfect and need to be scrapped: you, I think, are in a position to supply a new one by virtue of your education as Arabs in an American university here. The first model stipulates that the great white father is more powerful, represents modern knowledge, and is therefore in a position to tell us what to do, to decide for us, and generally remains in a position of superior authority over us, all by virtue of the mere fact that he or she is American. The early founders of the AUB were mostly missionaries who came here with a design to modernize and civilize us. I don’t want to blame them retrospectively, but that old attitude of superiority is simply unacceptable today in this far more egalitarian age. We have tried to cast off tutelage and paternalism during our years of struggle for self-determination and independence. But insofar as it still remains, this attitude for non-Westerners like us means that our only option would in effect be to stay imprisoned in a position of subordination and inferiority. They speak, we listen; they tell us, we do accordingly, despite the appearance of dialogue and friendly exchange. Many Arab rulers, I am sorry to say, have accepted that position which is not a popular one. Most of us feel that we have real ideas and real values of our own which shouldn’t just be thrown out because it doesn’t suit Washington, or London or Paris.

This brings in the other model, which is the reverse of the first. The second model is one of opposition, it is us versus them. They are imperialists, we are fighters on behalf of our cause, and we won’t listen to them. But that too is an unacceptable model, if only because we must be able to take from anyone what can be taken; besides no person, and certainly no culture or nation is sealed against everyone who doesn’t seem to belong. There is no such thing as an entirely Western, or Islamic, or Arab idea. All ideas are mixed both in origin and use. Similarly, everyone of us today is a composite person, and it is the rankest folly – which, alas, has been proved all too conclusively by the wasteful destructiveness of civil war – to believe that individuals, or cultures, or nations, or religions, can be separated like sheep from goats into warring entities. It is one of the bitterest legacies of imperialism in this part of the world that partition, or separation, was adopted as a method for ruling peoples. It hasn’t totally worked, and it will never totally work. This is why Arabs still feel that they are Arabs, despite the differences and nationalities that divide them.

It should be immediately obvious then that both of these rigid models are unworkable in theory and in practice. The world is too complicated a place to allow cliches and reductive formulas to rule us. And this is where the role of a critical understanding of our world must play its just role in how as Arabs with an American education we need to look at the world today. Universities give their students knowledge, and certainly at this quite unique institution you have received the best knowledge available. Knowledge, however, is a very different thing from understanding which, as young graduates, you must develop on your own, particularly a critical understanding of the complex interrelationship between your lives as Arabs in interaction with the world outside and all around as well as inside you. So if subordination or rejection are inappropriate models, what is more appropriate and adequate a method for dealing with the complex relationships that govern all our lives, but specially yours, as young Arab graduates of an American university?

It is the role of understanding that first enables us to ask questions like who am I? And what is my relationship to my background and tradition, and what is my relationship to others? These are questions not only to be asked by philosophers or political scientists but are the responsibility of every citizen, no matter what profession or expertise he or she possesses. In other words, you can’t hide inside your profession and say, I’m a doctor or an engineer, and all I want to do is get on with my work. In this part of the world we have suffered too much from the attitude that simply leaves politics and society to the politicians whereas educated professionals either pursue a career or make money, leaving the main decisions to people who have governed us for too long, undemocratically, despotically, and with a great deal of contempt and cruelty. Part of the blame for this sorry state of affairs goes back in part to imperialism and to what Zionism did to us all. As result we have accepted life in a state of emergency, with democratic freedoms suspended, with military or family dictatorships in power more or less indefinitely. All of this in the name of nationalism and the security of the state.

But this has gone on for too long. Education in state schools and universities has suffered, the press has suffered, the life of the ordinary citizen has suffered. Illiteracy is on the rise in the Arab world. Productivity in nearly every field is down. Huge expenditures on military establishments and bloated, ineffective bureaucracies that sap the budget are the norm, as are torture, the absence of basic civil rights, and freedom of expression. Most of us as Arabs feel that we alone are moving backwards while the rest of the world moves forward.

You new graduates of AUB are in an incredibly important and fortunate position. You have had the benefits of an excellent liberal education. You are effectively bilingual. You have had the use of a fine library. You live in a country which by Arab standards is still more democratic than the others. So you are the vanguard for the new citizens of the Middle East. What then is the special part you can play?

I would say first of all to think critically, not to accept easy answers, nor to live within the confines of your expertise. Most of all that means trying always to remain in a position of the curious and skeptical consciousness, always on the alert and receptive to the challenges to you, as young Arab Lebanese citizens, of the world beyond your borders. This means initially that being from Lebanon you think of yourselves as the proud inheritors of several traditions, rather than only of one, — Arab, Islamic, Christian, Roman, Greek, Phoenician, Canaanite, Jewish, Armenian, Kurdish, and yes, even African, Indian and of course American and European. You would be doing yourselves the gravest injustice, in fact you would be mutilating your own lives if you were to think of yourselves as mainly Christian, or Muslim, or Druze or sectarian in some provincial, small-minded chauvinist way. Look to your neighbor in the south, Israel, where the proposal by the Minister of Education that high-school students should have the option of reading a Palestinian poem nearly brought down the government! As if being a Jew meant not even exposing one’s mind to someone else at all! As Arabs we have fought that kind of narrow-minded exclusivism with all our energies precisely because Arab nationalism was historically open and secular, never sectarian or confessional, and therefore able to mobilize large numbers of people in the liberationist project. That must never be forgotten or given up. Thus a critical consciousness enables one to look out on the world with a full awareness of its complexities without retreating into xenophobia or the petty orthodoxies of nationalism, and sectarianism.

The same critical openness should guide your view of the United States, which is not only a source of wealth, military power, and strangely-dressed people in tennis shoes, but a complex society with far more counter-currents in it, than most people realize. We Arabs have rarely studied America; none of our universities teaches its literature, politics, and society systematically and hardly any of our intellectuals write about it seriously. All of us think we know America, but few of us look beyond newspapers or CNN. We have a roughly similar ignorance of Israel, as if gaining knowledge of something you must deal with is like being defeated by or making a concession to it. How far from helpful such anti-intellectual prejudices are!

Second, a sense of citizenship and of critical awareness allows you to see the whole of human history as common enterprise, and not as a kind of Darwinian race for domination and supremacy. Cultures are neither commodities nor can they be owned like cars or shoes. They are in a state of continuing development and dynamic change, as well as maintaining constant interactions with other cultures. As Arabs we need to recall with pride, rather than arrogance, that our ancestors traveled all over and contributed to the cultures of India, the Far East, Africa and Europe. They were the pioneers of modern science, of humanism, of the building arts, of philosophy and linguistics long before Europe: indeed there is good reason for saying that the modern humanistic curriculum originated in the Arab universities of Sicily, Tunis, Andalusia, Cairo and Baghdad. So we have it as our living heritage that we can see and travel in the world as free minds that are not subject to authorities who set themselves up as official representatives of Arab or Islamic culture, who claim that they speak for the authentic values of our culture and who are therefore entitled to ban books and ideas as un-Arab or un-Islamic. This is pure demagoguery. No one can speak in the name of an entire culture because, as I said earlier, cultures are in a state of dynamic transformation all the time: to speak on behalf of a culture is to debase and freeze it and turn it into an idol. If we protest against those like Samuel Huntington who claim to speak in the name of the West and the clash of civilizations we should also protest against those who think they have been delegated to speak in the name of the militant East.

On the other hand, it would be futile to pretend that there are no basic differences between people, and that what we perceive as cultural, linguistic and religious differences don’t really exist. Of course they do. As Arabs we can be distinguished from Americans, or Indians, or Latin Americans. Spanish is not Arabic, and German is not French. But what matters is that we understand how to deal with others in a world that has shrunk dramatically in the past decade, so that electronic communication, e-mail, and the internet, to say nothing of jet planes and space satellites, have made separation, distance and difference much easier things to overcome. And that is the problem, as well as the challenge. If it is true that today a dictator cannot so easily ban books, or that ideas can travel beneath or above border posts and barricades, how are we to preserve our identities in the face of this tremendous wash of media, internet and fast travel that threatens us with anonymity or the brainwashed conformity that seems to accompany globalization?

The worst response, I think, is to say we are who we are, and we shall resist you, the designated outsider, at all costs. Defensive resistance, I need hardly say to Lebanese men and women, is crucial and needs to be waged, but it can only go so far. The world is a very big and interesting place: must we go on fighting against it, or is there some other way to coexist with it, interact meaningfully with it, be a creative part of humanity’s historical march? I think there is such a way, and I have spent all of my intellectual life trying on the one hand to resist the labels, stereotypes, myths imposed by the more powerful on the weaker as a method of conquest, and on the other, trying to find a way to be in the world as part of the dialogue of human beings with each other, a dialogue that is critical, not merely nice, a dialogue that can point to and fight against injustice and what is false while at the same time contributing something positive.

The method is, as I have been saying, is to develop a critical and I should add skeptical awareness of our world. What do I mean? I mean first of all that we regard knowledge of all kinds with respect, but not submissively or unthinkingly. This is perhaps obviously true of knowledge in the humanities or social sciences, less obviously the case with medicine or engineering. There one needs to ask the question of human interest and values; does this expert knowledge in internal medicine or civil engineering advance the common human good or does it not? You, as citizens, must decide this for yourselves. Recent history is full of evidence that scientists, physicians, and chemists have allowed their work to be used for destructive purposes or simply for profit or nationalist loyalty, whether to destroy another people, to produce harmful drugs, or to perform questionable experiments on human beings, to torture and in other ways aid in the pursuit of unjust ends. Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli citizen whom the Mossad kidnapped off a Rome Street for having revealed his country’s atomic secrets and has languished in solitary confinement for two decades, must be recognized as a genuine hero of conscience.

In the humanities and the social sciences the critical spirit is instructed to avoid the pitfalls of national pride and narcissism, which then enables us to see different cultures not as competitors for the title of greatest or most developed but rather as movements of a majestic, symphonic whole, the history of humankind in all its variations and divergences. So the first aspect of critical understanding is to be acutely aware of the ethical dimensions of what one studies or does.

The second is to be able to distinguish between what is considered real and pragmatic on the one hand, and what is humanly desirable on the other. Take globalization for example. We are constantly bombarded with precepts about the inevitability of the free market, of privatization, of the desirability of unrestricted trade. Little is said about the immense human costs of that whole enterprise, about the greater impoverishment of the already poor, of entire economies ruined because the insufficiently examined doctrines of neo-liberalism or the World Bank decree that certain steps are necessary to reduce the state’s ability to provide citizens with services, and so if a few people have to suffer, then so be it. Critical, skeptical intelligence regards reality as endlessly dynamic, and believes the specifically human gift is to be able to think of better, more just alternatives to what is put before the mind as a frozen doctrinal inevitability. And this search for alternatives to the status quo is necessary for us all to do, as part of what the critical understanding can supply humanity with, which is to provide thought not just about greater profit but about human entitlements, the right not to be poor, the right to have democracy as well as economic development for the whole society.

Third, the critical intelligence is skeptical of most orthodoxy and dogma, whether that be nationalist, religious, or philosophical. This I think is the most important aspect of what I have to say to you as young AUB graduates. Human history is first and foremost a history of human effort overcoming obstacles and making institutions. These are brought about not by dogma, nor by eternal laws, but rather by human labor, human will, human rationality. They always confront the forces of superstition, organized ignorance and unjust authority. But as I said earlier, opposing dogma and orthodoxy is not only about being defensive or negative, it is also about human exchange, human solidarity and a common human understanding. In this enterprise then, being Arab or American or Chinese is less important, I believe, than being able to exchange ideas as equals involved in the same struggle for human liberation as your fighters have been in the South. Human identity itself is not, and never has been, a matter of frozen packages, nor certainly was it ever something unchangeable and immutable. So it is deeply wrong, deeply inhuman to regard our world as an ongoing civil war, with people of different cultures fighting each other across armed barricades. What is much more true, and certainly more interesting, is to see human identity and culture being cumulatively constructed as a complex mixture of exchanges between various cultures, in which every individual is herself the product, as Gramsci says, of an infinity of historical traces which it is possible to re-read, re-vise, re-grasp. One of the accomplishments of what are called revisionist historians, in the Arab world as well as in Israel, the US, and India, is that they have come back to a national history and, with a great deal of dedication and ingenuity, re-read it from a different standpoint, allowing hidden or silenced aspects of it to speak, as it were, allowing the past to tell a different story than the old one of militant nationalism and unremitting communitarian strife. A great model is provided by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which presented the horrors of apartheid for all to see, and then moved forward in building a new South Africa. Identity, if it is not to become the banner for war, is always in need of new readings that provide us with hope for dialogue and coexistence with others, so long as there is equality between citizens and social justice for everyone concerned.

In sum then, you leave this place as a group of young women and men capable of seeing yourselves critically as Arab and, by virtue of your education, American or Western as well. There need be no contradiction between the two things so long as you commit ourselves to the idea that as citizens your obligation towards our community is also a commitment to the existence of other communities, and that what the poet William Butler Yeats called the dialogue of self and soul is the dialogue taking place inside us as vigilant seekers after truth and justice, without which there can be no real education, no dialogue of cultures, no real understanding. From this perspective then, today is the beginning of your unending self-education.”