Saoud El Mawla: Beirut Islamic studies scholar trapped in Beirut and can't get to teaching job in US

Historians in the News

Saoud El Mawla was a year late in accepting a position as professor at Earlham College. He was supposed to start in the 2003-4 academic year. But the tightening of visa rules post-9/11 meant that Lebanese citizens like El Mawla were unable to get the necessary documents to come to the United States. It didn’t matter that El Mawla has been hired to teach peace studies, and was an outspoken advocate for non-violent solutions to the problems of the Middle East. It took nearly a year of negotiations, in which Earlham’s president and other top officials lobbied the State Department, for El Mawla to gain the visa he needed to get to Indiana.

Last month, El Mawla went home to Beirut. His visa and passport needed to be renewed and he wanted to see his family. He never thought he’d have difficulty returning to Earlham to prepare for the fall semester. But even as U.S. citizens are now being evacuated, the situation is different for El Mawla and other Lebanese citizens, even those like him who have a full-time teaching job at an American college. Not only can’t he rely on U.S. help to get out, but El Mawla can’t take the route through Syria that others are using to escape. Some of his writings have offended Syrian authorities (he has called for democracy in the country) so he is not welcome there.

The Internet is not reliable in Beirut right now, but El Mawla was able to get online briefly Wednesday to answer some questions about his situation. As frustrated as he is, he said he is pleased to be with his loved ones in Beirut, and not thousands of miles away. “I couldn’t imagine this situation with me in the U.S.A. and my family caught alone in war,” he said. He’s anything but isolated right now. Five other families (siblings and brothers-in-law and their families) have moved into his family’s home, as many have fled the southern portion of Lebanon, where fighting is most intense. On Wednesday, reports of the collapse of cease fire talks were particularly worrisome because he has a brother who remains in the south and El Mawla’s children are moving about in Beirut....

El Malwa — who earned his Ph.D. in Islamic civilization from the Sorbonne in 1984 — spent most of his career teaching about Islamic philosophy, interfaith relations and issues of war and peace at Lebanese University. Much of his work focused on what might fit into the field of peace studies in the United States, but he noted that “we don’t have peace studies” in Lebanon. In fact El Malwa uses a surprising word ("militant") to describe what it means to apply peace studies in Lebanon, whether or not one is affiliated with such a department.

“War was and is my first enemy,” said El Malwa. “This is my first war as a peace studies professor, but not as an activist and militant for peace and justice. The first lesson here is that war tests our commitment and struggle for peace and justice. It is not enough to speak about peace — you have to act and to act in a situation of war. This is the very important aspect of being a peace studies professor. We are not only academics and intellectuals — we are also militants and activists putting our lives and our education and teaching into practice....

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