Scholar of Peace in the Line of Fire

Earlham professor was home visiting his family in Beirut. Because he's not a U.S. citizen, he's not sure he can return to his job.
July 27, 2006

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.

"We spend most of our time listening to the news to be able to know where the bombings are so we can know who is caught under fire and what we can do to help. My son (Earlham student, 20 years) and daughter (16) and their cousins and friends (between 16 and 21) are helping in building networks of solidarity and humanitarian aid. They go at 7 a.m. and come back late after midnight," he wrote. "Imagine how we pray and hope that they will be safe and come back to us alive."

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.

"It is not easy -- believe me you cannot speak about peace when you are caught for many days in a house under heavy bombings -- or when ambulances of the Red Cross are bombed. The war brings us to real life and puts us before the human sufferings, hopes and tears. We have to stay firm in our convictions, to spread hope, to build networks of solidarity and action trying to stop the war and to make peace. It is very very hard but we cannot do anything else."

At Earlham, El Mawla's work has been quite different. He arrived there through the Plowshares Peace Studies Collaborative, which supports peace studies professors and programs at three colleges in Indiana that are affiliated with pacifist faiths (Earlham, which is Quaker; Goshen, which is Mennonite; and Manchester, which is part of the Church of the Brethren). El Mawla has been teaching "Introduction to Islam and the Middle East" and "Peace and Justice From a Muslim Perspective" as formal courses at Earlham, while also organizing a variety of informal seminars and talks, ranging from timeless topics (the role of calligraphy in Islam) to current affairs (he organized a session about the Danish cartoon controversy). With colleagues at Goshen and Manchester, he also helped organize three conferences for students at the three colleges to talk about peace studies.

One of his goals for the fall was the launch of a new online journal on peace studies.

What the fall will actually bring is uncertain. El Mawla would like to return to Earlham, if he can get a visa and get his immediate family out of Lebanon as well. Right now the U.S. Embassy remains so overwhelmed dealing with U.S. citizens that he doesn't know what would be possible or how he could get out, since he can't go through Syria. If he stays in Beirut, it is unlikely that there will be universities at which he could teach. "I think this is going to be a long war," he said, adding that he's particularly upset about the prospect of Lebanese students of all ages being unable to attend classes.

Earlham has let El Mawla know that he has a job if he can get there. But trying to offer support even if that isn't possible, the college's provost, Len Clark, has worked out an arrangement with the Lilly Endowment -- which finances the Plowshares program -- so that El Mawla will be paid even if he remains trapped in Beirut.


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