Lebanon’s bloody war
Walid Phares, A Hero to Muslim Liberals
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I am a Muslim liberal activist in Lebanon and the son of Mustafa Geha the author of several books on Islam, Shi’ism and reforms. My father’s legacy stretched two decades prior to, during, and following Lebanon’s conflict in the mid-1970s and 1980s. Among the many books he authored was a daring essay titled, Mihnat al Aql fil Islam (English: “The Crisis of Islamic Thinking”) which opened the way, not only for critical thinking in Shia and Islamic theology, but in Islamic history and politics. Although Mustafa Geha’s body of literature was perhaps too early for his time, most of his calls for action, including rational thinking, civil society and democracy were espoused many decades later in what is today known as “the Arab Spring,” or at least the authentically secular part of it.
But writing on challenging topics in the Middle East and particularly in Lebanon during the fifteen-year conflict was extremely dangerous. My father paid a heavy price for his attachment to intellectual freedom. Indeed he was cowardly assassinated in 1992 by pro-Syrian operatives while he was about to take a ride into his car. I didn’t enjoy having a father in my life because of the totalitarian views that dominated Lebanon in the 1990s.
My father wasn’t the only writer who was killed by Terrorists. Before him Yussef Kamal al Hage, a leading Lebanese thinker of the 1960s, was assassinated in the 1970s by radicals. Salim al Lawzi, editor of the weekly al Hawadeth, Riad Taha, the president of the Union of journalists, Gebran Tueni, editor of daily al Nahar, and many others who lived and fought with the pen, were executed, assassinated and, in some cases, tortured. During Lebanon’s bloody war, as in most of the region’s conflicts, there were men and women who pursued their vision of freedom and democracy through ideas, irrespective of affiliation or geographic location.
Among those Lebanese intellectuals persecuted for advocating freedom, is Dr Walid Phares, a man I respect and admire. Dr. Phares has cultivated a respected academic and publishing career in the United States for over two decades. As a Lebanese Muslim and an Arab liberal I have been following his work and statements in favor of democratization and liberalization in the Middle East and salute his relentless efforts in publishing books, articles, and lectures in English, French and Arabic. I am writing this article, in particular because of his achievements before he emigrated to the US, and after he became an American citizen. I am also dedicating this piece to express my frustration against the sinister attacks leveled against him in US media by pens serving the same goals as those behind the assassins of my father.
I have read recent disgusting pieces of propaganda against Phares, published in media promoting itself as progressive and friendly to Muslims, while in reality they are the farthest from true liberalism and side systematically with the ideological forces that are oppressing our Muslim civil societies in the region. The campaign against Walid Phares incited by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which has been accused by US Counter Terrorism experts as being a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, has been aptly named “The Jihad against Phares” (*) by an American expert. Other sources claim CAIR serves the interests of the Iranian regime via Hamas (*). This Islamist lobby asked a leading Presidential Republican to drop Professor Phares as an advisor on the Middle East. The hateful CAIR letter accused Phares of ignominious false allegations including being “Islamophobic” and somehow linked to militiamen who shot Palestinians in Beirut back in 1982 and being. Dr. Phares had no involvement with any military. I am all too familiar with these Mafioso intimidation tactics as we had experienced and continue to experience them in the Middle East and in Lebanon. My father, a peaceful writer and reformer was accused of worse matters by the propaganda machine of the Jihadists and the Syrian-Iranian regimes. Reformers and intellectuals during Soviet times were often demonized and muddied by the totalitarians. Walid Phares is not an exception.
But what surprised me was to read articles published at one day intervals in magazines and on sites claimed to be progressive and liberal, at least according to American norms. How can Salon.com, The New Republic, the Daily Beast, Mother Jones and others claim they are on the side of social justice and the weakest segments of society when they carry these kind of stories against a man who has spent the last three decades of his life standing for liberty around the world, and paid a dear price for it in his own community and mother country? I understand if Nihad Awad of lobby group CAIR or As’ad Abukhalil, known to be a Hezbollah propagandist, rage against Phares but why would so-called liberals like McKay and Serwer defame the author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East? Are they part of the same campaign as CAIR and the Hezbollah propagandists? Whatever are the answers to this imbroglio in US politics, one matter is clear to me from my end of the world: Professor Phares’ image is untarnished.
During the Lebanon conflict, Walid Phares was a young man who accomplished a difficult task to be a published intellectual, public speaker, active in democratic politics in the face of two heavy challenges. He, like most members of his community and many Lebanese, accepted the duty of defending Lebanon against Syrian occupation and terror domination. From the time he was a law student, Phares chose the path of writing, publishing and speaking in public. But his interests weren’t only his motherland. Since his first book and subsequent articles in the early 1980s, Phares raised the issues of multiethnic societies and spoke for the weakest: Kurds, South Sudan, Copts, Berbers, Assyrians, and other minorities. He was perhaps unlucky that he had to develop a regional and international scholarship in a country that has been at war since he was in high school. While other intellectuals chose to either flee Lebanon or submit to the narrative of the Arabists and Islamists in the Middle East, the young attorney turned publisher, stubbornly stayed his intellectual course and offered his thoughts wherever he could. This is why the supporters of Islamism and Pan Arabism never forgave him and never forgot about his long train of achievements. They have a score to settle with a thinking process that approximates Soviet dissidence and that courageously promoted the fall of totalitarian regimes and ideologies. Phares did it from his own habitat, the Maronite and Christian community, while my father Mustafa Geha did it from our habitat, the Shia Muslim community. Phares has been a target of character assassination by these forces of totalitarianism while my father was actually assassinated by them.
It is stunning to read in the so-called “progressive” US press today that Phares is blamed for having lectured in his own community in East Beirut during the early 1980s. Where should have he lectured? Under Hezbollah auspices or in collaboration with the Syrian occupation? It was natural that he would speak to audiences in his own environment. My father, a Shia thinker, spoke to the same Lebanese Christian audiences, Lebanese Forces included, and praised Walid Phares’ comments rigorously focused on pluralism and achieving democracy. And more puzzling is critics lashing out against Phares participation in a policy council along with all parties in the free areas of the country to oversee the defense forces and management of society. Bringing him and representatives to that council was a move to widen participation of society’s political forces after years of dominance by one political party in East Beirut. In the circumstances of the times, this was an important advance towards political pluralism, although it failed in the end.
But Phares’ other efforts, that is democratization inside East Beirut, were the most challenging, and unfortunately not acknowledged by his critics. The young attorney and writer aimed at pushing for higher levels of democracy and freedoms inside the so-called Christian areas, while the Syrians and Hezbollah dominated the Muslim areas. He was part of a Social Democratic group, launched a Labor Union, student committees and a coalition of Middle East minorities, and was a sharp critic of authoritarianism, even within wthe so-called free areas. His work was often suppressed and towards the end of the decade, Phares ability to promote democracy was lost. The challenge came from the Syrian-Hezbollah axis on the outside and from the dominant forces within the Christian community on the inside. Indeed it has been an almost impossible task for freedom advocates in the 1980s to promote their ideas of liberty in the midst of an ethnic conflict, sandwiched between the threat to the community and the little freedoms inside the community.
But we Muslim liberals understood Walid Phares’ message then, and even more decades later. My father visited his younger intellectual colleague at his home in East Beirut and they often appeared on radio or on panels. Mustafa Geha and Walid Phares coming from different communities had one thing in common, seeking freedom, each one in his own context. For Phares participation in the political council of parties in East Beirut (known as Lebanese Front or Lebanese Forces) was in fact a guarantee, not a challenge, to the rights of Muslims, because he spoke of pluralism and federation, the most advanced formulas for political participation. Islamists and Pan Arabists opposed him naturally, but those who among Muslims were struggling for liberal ideas, understood Phares and supported him, despite the sectarian barriers of the time.
My greatest admiration for this man was his longstanding publishing and push in the United States, after he emigrated, for the sake of freedom in the Arab world and the Middle East. Relentlessly he briefed and testified, authored and advised on the rise of Jihadi threat and on the region’s civil societies’ aspirations for freedom. To many among us, young liberal Muslims in the region, Phares was doing more for our cause than many organized self-declared Muslim groups in America. While the latter were siding with dictators, in some cased funded by them, and advocating for Islamists, Phares and his colleagues were presenting our case to the American and Western public. The case of seculars, moderates, liberals and conservatives but not Jihadist Muslims. In his three books published after 9/11, which were criticized by Islamist lobbies in the US, Professor Phares was strongly advocating US partnership with secular Muslims. Remarkably Phares published his last book, The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, one year before the Arab Spring, predicting the uprisings. The Islamist lobbies fell silent about it, because in his book Phares talks about Muslim civil societies not the Islamists. He unveiled the existence of a large mass of youth who refuses the fundamentalist view of the world in the region, while Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeinists claim the region wants them to rule the peoples.
I am assuming this was the fundamental reason behind the dirty assault against Professor Walid Phares in the blogosphere by the Islamist militants online. It is not about Phares honorable achievements in Lebanon or his involvement in a Presidential campaign. It is about the scholar’s strategic ability to help his country, the United States, understand the challenges and partner with the peoples of this region. His enemies are the enemies of American values and of real freedom in the Middle East. He was accused of Islamophobia while those who accuse him are the ones blocking the minds of young Muslims and keeping them in a state of Islamophobic fears.
In a preface to Phares’ essay “Thirteen Centuries of Struggle” published in 1982, St. Joseph University Professor Jean Aucagne compared Walid Phares to Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik. “He is to the Muslim world what Amalrik was to the Soviet Union, seeking the rise of freedom.” Walid Phares continued what my father wanted to pursue, a gigantic work to reform the region to realize pluralist democracy. My father was killed in the line of intellectual duty. Professor Phares picked up the message and took it to the free world. We Muslim liberals are looking forward to see this message come back to free us from the prison of fundamentalism and totalitarian realities.
Mustafa Mustafa Geha is a Muslim Lebanese Liberal activist based in Beirut.