JBEIL, Lebanon: Professor Adonis Akra looked quite at home in his luminous office nestled in a quiet corner of Jbeil’s Old City. Although he was appointed as the director of the International Center for Human Sciences (CISH) just last May, he proved well versed in all aspects of the institution.
“The oldest part of the building was erected in the 18th century,” he said, gesturing with zeal at the stone walls of the Center. “But parts of the northern wall date back to the Crusades.”
It seems fitting that CISH, a center with the age-old aim of promoting peace and scholarship, should reside in such an ancient and storied city. This is, of course, no coincidence.
CISH works under the auspices of UNESCO, which has long been involved in the preservation and documentation of Byblos’ history.
Since its launch in 1999, the center has hosted numerous conferences and programs for academics and civic leaders to discuss issues of democracy.
Historically, CISH has hosted the “Byblos Autumn School,” which brings together master’s and Ph.D. students as well as prominent professors to debate these topics. Following what Akra calls “a period of weakness” at CISH, however, the school was suspended in 2008.
This November, the Autumn School will reopen, with more of Lebanon’s best and brightest graduate students convening in Jbeil to discuss the topic of “Dialogue, Truth and Democracy in our Digital World.”
With bright eyes and a warm smile, Akra waxed rhetorical. “Should the truth always be told in a democracy?”
“If someone gives a religious speech that could incite civil war,” he said, “in that case it’s better to withhold some things [from the public].”
The philosophy professor cited what he believed was the media’s overexposure of Salafist firebrand Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir as one such example.
CISH, Akra was quick to qualify, is not political and avoids overtly taboo topics. “We try to stay away from that as much as possible,” he said. “Here we set aside all our differences for the service of the center.”
Indeed social sciences in Lebanon, he said, are often impeded by institutional biases. “The main obstacle in the way of this kind of activity is the political environment. But it’s not just political. It’s also religious.” CISH’s dedication to apolitical scholarship and its partnership with UNESCO make it unique in Lebanon, he said.
While avoiding issues that can lead to sectarian divides, CISH is keen to broach topical issues in this year’s Autumn School. In light of revelations about America’s extensive global espionage operations, discussion topics will include issues like human rights and foreign affairs in the digital age.
The students this year are all Lebanese but hail from “different universities, different cultures and different social milieus,” Akra said.
The Autumn School will serve as an introduction to an international congress to be held at the center in December. Scholars and specialists from 13 countries will attend the congress, Akra said.