Al Jazeera World

Soft Power: The US and the Middle East

We explore the history of Beirut’s American University and whether it has played a role in US interests in the region.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.

Filmmaker: Jad Abi Khalil

The American University of Beirut was founded nearly 150 years ago and is the oldest university in Lebanon.

It was established in December 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College. Since then, almost 65,000 students from around 100 countries have graduated from the university, known as AUB. This year, some 8,000 Arab men and women will study there.

This film explores AUB, one of the leading academic institutions in the Middle East, and some of the ways its history has been interwoven with that of Lebanon itself. It examines whether AUB has played a role in United States’ interests in Lebanon and in the region.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) is the oldest university in Lebanon [Al Jazeera]
The American University of Beirut (AUB) is the oldest university in Lebanon [Al Jazeera]

The university has always pursued an educational mission first and foremost and only. There has never been collusion between this institution and the organs of American foreign policy. But as you say, there is no way that the university can track the activities of everyone of its members.

by Peter Dorman, AUB president from 2008 - 2015

At the start of the 19th century, American Protestant missionaries arrived in Greater Syria from Jerusalem and settled in Beirut, then a small Ottoman city. There they established the first American higher education academy in the Levant. 

The first class was in theology, was taught in Arabic, and had 16 students.

Arabic was replaced by English as the university’s official language and in 1882, the college became the battleground for an academic and religious debate when one of its chemistry professors made a speech urging support for Charles Darwins theory of evolution.

In 1920, the college officially became secular, adopted an American liberal arts curriculum and changed its name to the American University of Beirut. Some viewed these changes as an increase in American influence in a region where the dominant powers were still Britain and France.

The AUB’s reputation spread, it attracted higher student numbers and its graduates began to occupy quite high-profile positions. It also gradually became a focus for students supporting the emerging Arab nationalist political ideas and movement.

We hear different perspectives on the AUB’s influence – and that of its students and graduates – in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

A whole series of historical events both influenced and drew in students at the AUB in a two-way process.

Many were opposed to the founding of Israeli in 1948.

In 1958, the US was asked to intervene militarily by Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, and although troops only stayed three months, the episode created anti-American sentiments in Lebanon.

In 1970, the Palestinian Liberation Organization re-located from Amman to Beirut and the influence of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party grew among AUB students.

In 1974, AUB students protested against higher tuition fees and its administration suspended the students’ union in a ban that would last 20 years. The AUB also managed to continue to function throughout the 15-year Lebanese civil war; and its students reacted to Israel’s occupation of Beirut in 1982.

In 1983, the US embassy and an American marine base were attacked and in January 1984 AUB President Malcolm Kerr was murdered.

All three acts had targeted the American presence in Beirut and the AUB was perceived as part of that overall influence. When the civil war finally ended in 1990 under the terms of the Al Taif Agreement, one of its buildings, College Hall, was hit by an explosion. Opponents of the agreement are thought to have been responsible, again seeing the AUB as a symbol of American influence.      

In the latter half of the 1990s, political parties in Lebanon gradually became strengthened. As a result, the impact of AUB students on Lebanese political life diminished. In 1994, the university administration ended its ban on the students’ union and elections were staged. Students independent of any political parties stood for election, but lost. The last major AUB student protests took place that year.  

Soft Power looks at key events in Lebanese history through the prism of the AUB and at how one has, for a combination of reasons, sometimes influenced the other.