Gibran Chair Inaugural Lecture Transcript

 

Lecture delivered by May A. Rihani


President Wallace Loh, Vice President Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ambassador Massoud Maalouf, Dean Gregory Ball, Dean Bonnie Dill, Representatives of the Embassies of Lebanon, Tunisia, Qatar, Iraq, and Bahrain, distinguished colleagues, students, and friends; 

 
It is my privilege to address you tonight about the critical issue of Peace, as the Director of the George and Lisa Zakhem Khalil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace.
 
Before I share some thoughts and reflections about Peace and my vision for the Gibran Chair, I would like to begin by acknowledging the important work accomplished by my distinguished predecessor, Professor Emeritus Souheil Bushru’i, the Chair’s first Director, and the one who set its course. Professor Bushru’i was a visionary, who worked tirelessly to enable his students and his colleagues – in fact all with whom he came in contact with– to become aware of the importance of that which connects all human beings.  Though he described himself as “only a camel driver,” Professor Bushru’i recognized that that which connects us and unifies us, ultimately leads us to true and lasting Peace.  
To follow the footsteps of such a visionary is challenging. However, being likewise inspired by the overpowering sense of our unity—which also inspired Khalil Gibran—allows me to undertake the task with energy and gratitude. 
 
Peace for Gibran emanates from his deep belief in the brotherhood of mankind. He wrote: 
“I love you when you bow in your mosque, 
kneel in your temple, pray in your church. 
For you and I are sons of one religion, 
and it is the spirit.”  
 
Peace for Gibran is the result of a proactive approach that can make things happen. He wrote: 
“Your living is determined not so much by what Life brings to you as by the attitudes you bring to Life, not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”
Gibran inspires and that makes our work to build bridges to Peace, a little easier.
 
Reflecting on Peace led me to recognize that global Peace is not only one of the greatest challenges of our modern world, but something that humanity has continually yearned for, despite its apparent elusiveness.  
Peace has been central to human thinking and to the process of inquiry. Theories of Peace have been key to the study of conflict and wars, to the assessment of human aspirations and behaviors, and to the understanding of the human mind. 
In past centuries, Peace was examined based on many elements, situations, contexts, and conditions. Peace, conflicts, and wars were state-centric and were studied based on the relations between nation states.  Exploring and analyzing how nation states interact, what causes them to go to war and what motivates them to seek Peace were key approaches to understanding what is at play. 
 
Scholars who study Peace-making and Peace-building came to understand that Peace does not manifest itself only as the absence of war but as Spinoza wrote in 1670, "Peace is a virtue, a state of mind, and a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice."
 
In the recent past, and presently, there are many schools of thought regarding the possibilities of Peace. Among the main schools that have emerged is the modern realistic, or neo realistic school which is pragmatic in its views.  Kenneth Waltz wrote extensively about the neo-liberal school that views states as rational actors and the principal movers in what leads to conflict and Peace. Mearsheimer also wrote extensively about this school of thought.
Other schools of thought included the one based on the balance of power theory, and another one based on the economic interdependence theory. There are several more schools based on specific theories.
However, the British theorist Paul Rogers offers an approach that is based on the fact that the central principles of Peace Studies allow it to remain flexible and allow it to evolve over time. It does this by embracing a “strong interdisciplinary outlook, a consciously global orientation, and a determined linkage between theory and practice.” I find my thinking to be aligned with the analysis of Paul Rogers. 
Even though Peace has been studied in the past, continues to be studied in the present, and will be further examined and analyzed, there are serious constraints and obstacles that muddle the pursuit to Peace— be it within each state, between nation states, or on the regional or global scenes.
Research and analysis have shed light on the causes and characteristics of these obstacles; however, what have been researched and analyzed to date, might not be enough to contribute to the advancement of Peace within each nation, between nation states, at the regional level, and globally.
 
Peace continues to be one of the greatest challenges because our global village, in this early part of the 21st Century, is going through a period of global turbulence.  Wars, conflicts, divisions, and violence seem to be growing, economic inequality continues unresolved, and the tensions created by religion seem to be expanding.
 
This elusive Peace that we all yearn for, despite all the obstacles that exist on the road towards it, is perhaps what is most needed in this Century.
To understand further the prospects of Peace, policy makers, practitioners, academicians, and others must continue to unpack the possibilities of Peace and this very complex aspiration that we all yearn for.
 
Because Peace is such a great challenge and yet so desperately needed, academicians, practitioners and decision makers should not relax but intensify the efforts to study it. We should carefully consider how conflict can be avoided and how conditions for Peace be attained; how to build a new paradigm where coming generations will value Peace and work to ensure that it can be obtained; how the voices of thought leaders and activists, who believe in the necessity of global and regional Peace, can be highlighted and underlined; and how through collaboration among academicians, practitioners, and decision makers, knowledge about the strategies that advance Peace can be enriched.
The Gibran Chair through its academic research and activities will contribute to this unpacking process of how to advance the understanding of the possibilities of Peace. The contributions of the Chair, though built on the results of past theoretical research, will be based on a strong interdisciplinary approach, and will be “consciously determined to find the linkages between theory and practice.”
 
The Gibran Chair, will contribute to these efforts, by starting with the acknowledgement that Peace is Possible. We will dedicate our efforts to understanding the complexity of Peace and its realization.
 
With this overview, I would like now to do four things: 
1- Share with you the Vision of the Chair and the Principles that will guide its programming;
2- Discuss how the Gibran Chair will work and what its Programmatic Priorities are; 
3- Present what we hope the contributions of the Chair might be; and, then  
4- End this presentation with some reflections.
 
These topics are interrelated, so my presentation will not follow a linear path. 
The Gibran Chair is privileged to be housed in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences where interdisciplinary studies is natural and a matter of daily activities. An interdisciplinary approach will allow us to work with thinkers from different disciplines, both within the University of Maryland system, and with academicians from other educational institutions in the US and abroad. Also, an interdisciplinary approach will facilitate our work with civil society leaders and organizations, as well as with the policymakers. I believe that this collaborative effort can result in the deepening of the understanding of Peace and in the possibility of advancing it.
 
I believe that the search for Peace will be an active process that may keep reinventing itself— adapting to circumstances and opportunities, and gaining more perspectives.
 
We will work in particular on deepening our understanding of how to help new generations understand that Peace is possible and attainable. We will nurture the process of studying and exploring Peace with our students, as we nurture any academic journey towards specific goals.
 
So, as a result of this vision, the Gibran Chair’s active programs will address major global topics, including:
Studying the Pursuit of Peace;
Exploring Paths toward Peace; 
Examining Common Ground;
Understanding Cultural Pluralism;
Highlighting the Contributions of Women toward Peace;
Deepening Cross-Cultural Understanding;
Transcending the so-called East is East and West is West differences;
Revisiting Poetry, Literature and Art as Connectors within the Global Village; and
Celebrating Universal Human Values
 
These programs will be implemented in a variety of ways including: academic courses, research projects, lectures, seminars, workshops, symposia, conferences, and academic publications. 
As part of these programs we will celebrate people, events, and occasions that move Peace forward. 
The list of what should be done is daunting; therefore, being guided by principles that are the underpinnings of a realistic Peace is one of the major ways to advance effectively and efficiently.  
 
Among the top priority principles that will guide the work of the Gibran Chair are three:
1- Social Justice as a Foundational Cornerstone of Peace,
2- Inclusivity as a Necessary Condition to Peace, and 
3- Valuing Diversity as a Pathway to Peace. 
 
And among the most relevant and pressing topics to address, given the state of our Global Village, are also three:
1- Improving and deepening the understanding between the East and the West, or more specifically, between the Ethos of the East and the Cultural Values of the West.
2- Exploring how conflict, conflict resolution, Peace building, and maintaining Peace involve, engage, and impact women. 
3- Examining how ensuring access to basic rights by every one, particularly by minorities and the underprivileged, reduces and hopefully eliminates many constraints and obstacles to Peace.
 
Based on the principles I just mentioned, I believe the vision for Peace in the 21st Century needs to be a vision of Social Justice as a pathway to Peace, a vision of inclusivity, and a vision that embraces all. 
The Gibran Chair will work and collaborate with others on expanding and deepening the research and analysis related  to the many facets of social justice and we commit to working on several of its components.  Through our Chair, Social Justice and Peace issues will be explored  with insistence and persistence.
Our work on Peace will be based on a paradigm that includes a commitment to non-violent approaches, a behavior of non-discrimination, and a mindset that holds every religion, every race, and every individual with respect—regardless as to whether they are male or female, belong to a majority or a minority. 
As we work towards this vision of social justice, we will study and explore how we can:
Strengthen commitments to resolving conflicts through non violence; 
Increase the recognition that dialogue is a pathway towards valuing others and acknowledging their rights; 
Reject simplistic conspiracy theories that justify our problems and justify our malaise and ennui.  
Examine the assumptions that consider that most regional problems, and in particular global problems, cannot be resolved and Peace is totally illusive; 
Study success stories that illustrate that Peace is possible; and
Engage in discourses that search for the common ground among cultures.
 
As we work towards this vision of expanding the  understanding among cultures, the Chair will engage in academic programs that explore how to deepen the understanding of traditional East-West differences.  As an example, next month, October, Dr. Maher Mahmassani will deliver a lecture entitled, “Secularism in Islam as a Path to Peace.”
The Chair will intensify its activities and research, and implement programs that contribute to bridging the understanding between East and West. We believe this is an area on which Peace studies and Peace research should focus.
The Chair will work on highlighting the fact that a “Dialogue of Civilizations” may be a far more constructive and persuasive substitute to the theory of a “Clash of Civilizations.” We need bridges not walls— For that matter, we really need bridges, definitely not battlements. 
Also, as we work towards this vision of equality and inclusivity, we will study and explore how women can offer unique contributions to the Peace Process, and how the perspective of minorities are essential to reaching a sustainable Peace.  As an example, in December, the Gibran Chair is organizing a one-day Symposium about Arab Women and the Peace Process. More than 15 academicians and practitioners will be participating in the presentations of this Symposium.  The panelists that are contributing to this symposium are from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, Afghanistan, and the United States.
The presentations and discussions resulting from such programs aim at breaking stereotypes that misinform us about each other. Our activities should lead all of us to question our assumptions and come to an understanding of that which we do not fully comprehend.  
In addition to understanding the connections between civilizations, the Gibran Chair recognizes the importance of exploring, through research, how Peace can be reached within different cultures, religions, geographic entities, and communities.
We will listen to courageous ideas, such as theological courage, or the courage to find positive constructive interpretations of religions, the courage to reject the interpretations that lead to division, or the oppression of women, or the marginalization of the Other. The Gibran Chair will engage with scholars who write and publish, guided by the theological courage that allows them to discover the common ground among religions.  
 
Through its activities and research, the Chair will pursue its commitment to finding effective ways of understanding and engaging others, and deepening respect for different cultures.    
The Gibran Chair, like the other two Peace Chairs in our College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, aim at contributing to the reservoir of knowledge.
The Chair will contribute to building a storehouse of knowledge of effective ways to break the cycles of violence and to promote the culture of non-violence as a key path toward Peace.  
We will contribute to the knowledge of students and communities, locally and globally, a knowledge that helps tip the scale against violence and help us all understand that Peace is possible.  
The Chair will examine if there is a body of knowledge that is based on a Moral Compass which acknowledges that Social Justice might be the safest and surest path towards nonviolent resolutions of social and economic problems.
We will contribute to the knowledge that includes a value system that respects gender equality and recognizes that empowering women is in the interest of society as a whole. 
Women can no longer be both half of the population and at the same time an interest group. It pains me to observe that in many societies in our Century, women and girls continue to be underserved and barred from decision-making positions. It is time for us as a species to advance and step up to the level of basic equity. 
The Chair will contribute to the studies that recognize that protecting the rights of women and minorities, as well as underlining the enriching power of diversity are amongst the safest bets on the road to Peace.
In order to contribute effectively, to such a body of knowledge the Chair will work with researchers and activists on the importance of expanding their understanding of the power of Active Listening. Through active listening, the analysis of needs and situations, becomes more accurate, and the possibility of empathizing  with a variety of situations leads to a recognition that human rights need to be granted to every individual regardless, of race, religion, or gender. 
The Gibran Chair will remain conscious of the fact that perhaps its biggest contribution will be to enhance the possibilities for the students and the the new generations of becoming the visionaries and architects of a new narrative of Peace. 
Perhaps the Chair would contribute to teaching new generations to permit themselves to dream about Peace,  and to have the Determination of Positive Thinking.
Perhaps, in collaboration with others, we will contribute to establishing a culture of thinking and reflecting about the possibility of solving problems without reverting to violence, of negotiating without ending that process too quickly, of attempting to reach a Peaceful solution without ever giving up on that possibility. 
 
The Chair will work with students on exploring a more detailed and more in-depth understanding of Plural societies, and on the socio-cultural dimensions of human differences. We will conduct research that examines how to gain increased insights into cultural practices, cultural norms, and how to appreciate differences in these practices and norms. Also, research that examines the process that facilitates the appreciation of these differences.  The more we are able to appreciate differences and diversities the more we minimize the possibilities of conflict and maximize the possibilities of finding the roads to Peace.
Through research, academic courses, and work with students, we will try to weave the patterns of cultural connections. 
The Gibran Chair will become a hub, a beehive, for professors and students alike, for researchers and activists, for individuals from the greater Washington area and for individuals globally.  We are thankful that we are given such a powerful platform, and we will use it in the best way possible in the pursuit of Peace.
I invite students who are interested in exploring, researching, and creating new ways in the pursuit of Peace, to contact the Gibran Chair so we can together find ways to pursue such important interests.  
I invite researchers who are reflecting on the possibility of researching the different facets of Peace and examining the different strategies to reach Peace in a certain part of the world to contact the Gibran Chair so we can brainstorm together about next steps.
I invite other Chairs, departments, and professors who want to collaborate on programs to advance Peace to be in touch with the Gibran Chair. 
I invite leaders within Civil Society not to miss the opportunity of contacting the Gibran Chair to investigate how this academic platform can be beneficial to civil society in the greater Washington area, but also to civil society in Lebanon the birthplace of Gibran; the Middle East, a region that is yearning for Peace; Africa, a region with great promise; and of course globally.
 
The Chair is not a huge organization, however, it is part of a powerful university that shapes the minds of future generations, a prestigious and powerful university that recognizes that with this young and promising generation, we can find solutions to the complex problems of the world. 
As Margaret Mead said: 
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 
 
Gibran was not about closing doors, drawing boundaries and building walls, Gibran was about opening doors and windows and building bridges.
 
The more I reflect on the difference that the Gibran Chair can make, the more I see Gibran and the other thinkers and writers of the Arab Renaissance of the early 20th century, such as Ameen Rihani and Mikhail Naimy rejoice in the fact that we are following their footsteps. From my perspective, these thinkers from the small country of Lebanon, were the early globalists, who brought the Arab world to the West, and the West to the Arab world.  They were bridge builders.  I see them as thought leaders who were able to transcend boundaries and barriers, and who understood that what connects humanity is by far more important and more valuable than the differences that exist.  They inspired many individuals within several generations to build cultural bridges between the East and the West and to admire the achievements of different civilizations.  These early 20th century thinkers and universal citizens, celebrated the ideas and behavior that transcended geographical boundaries and class distinctions, and saw the enrichment that every human being will benefit from, when we recognize what connects us and what unites us. 
They wrote about how human beings are more connected to each other than they know.
They helped us see that what we have in common is far more important than that which seems to divide us.
They believed in the oneness of Humanity and made their voices heard both in the East and in the West. That is why they wrote in both Arabic and English, and that is why they are Cultural bridges and Messengers of Peace. 
Their place on the world stage is the result of the enlightenment they gained from their small country that values diversity and recognizes that by working on bringing Christians, Muslims, Druze, Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists and others under the same tent, conflicts will diminish and the road to Peace becomes more possible. 
Those dreamers of the early 20th Century inspired us and motivated us to continue on their Path, a path that believes in the Oneness of Humanity.   
 
However, as I mentioned earlier, what goes on presently on the world stage is often not about Peace.  The Gibran Chair for Values and Peace, and the other two Peace Chairs at the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland have a lot of work to do. The Challenges are huge. Many might say the Path to Peace might be blocked or at best is not clear.
I believe we need to reimagine Peace, the way Nelson Mandela was able to reimagine his society from a prison cell. The way Gandhi was able to reimagine independence even under a colonial power. The way Gibran and Rihani were able to reimagine bridges of understanding between the East and the West and in particular a cultural understanding between the Arabs and the US.
The Gibran Chair will be driven by a vision of the world that can reach a stage where the vast majority of individuals believes in equality for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender, where the vast majority recognizes that the Other, no matter who she/he is, is a member of one’s circle.
As the American poet Edwin Markham wrote:  
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In.
 
The Gibran Chair will continue to explore how humanity can draw a circle to take every one in.
Gibran, the Lebanese immigrant who lived in the US and became a global citizen, gained wisdom and compassion for the Other, for all humans, and for the Oneness of Humanity.
 
Wise and compassionate men and women visit our world to stretch the heart and minds of all others.
The Gibran Chair through its academic programs will attempt to stretch our hearts and minds, so we can work together on advancing Peace in our global village.
 
May A. Rihani
September 20, 2016
 

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