BEIRUT: Cancer treatment, educational reform, science, politics, hope and love – an incongruous mix, it may seem, but nonetheless one Dr. Philip Salem has plumbed in speeches and writings spanning some four decades. Now in a volume bearing a title worthy of such diverse discourse – “Cancer, Love and the Politics of Hope” – a selection of Salem’s editorials and speeches is presented in English alongside a short biography of the renowned Lebanese oncologist and established commentator and intellectual.
“The title of the book is very significant,” Salem told The Daily Star, clarifying the synthesis of his many interests.
“This book really is in celebration of the power of love and hope, and the conquest of human suffering and disease. ... [It’s about] what I have learned in medicine about the power of love and hope, translated into my work in politics and other areas,” he said during a Skype interview from his office in Houston at the Salem Oncology Center which he founded in 1991.
These lessons, even if first discussed in articles printed years ago, still bear relevance today, Salem said.
In Salem’s writing his personal relationship with God is clear, but when it comes to mixing religion and politics the 72-year-old who was born in the Koura village of Bturram could not express greater opposition.
“I think this mixture is the prescription of death to the Middle East and to Lebanon,” he said, highlighting that in many of his writings he has spoken out for the separation of church and state.
“The fact that we have not been able to make any progress for the last 40 years in Lebanon is a question of the poor political leadership because of our sectarian system,” Salem said. “That system cannot possibly produce big people.”
The production of so-called “big people” requires the fundamental resetting of the “Arab mind,” according to Salem, and this in turn demands educational reform. The education currently offered, even at university level, in the Middle East “leaves a very thin layer of paint” on students’ skins, Salem argues.
The limitations of the education system hampered Salem in the 1970s, when his own clinical research at the American University of Beirut was deemed unconventional and greeted with opposition. His biographers, Frances Mourani and Boutros Indari, note that the doctor was threatened with dismissal not once but twice during this time. Salem himself discusses these incidents in speeches reproduced in the book.
Today, Salem blames the failures of education for the absence of civil society in the region and the challenges the Arab Spring revolutions are facing.
“The education system is one of the major reasons we are in a mess in Lebanon and the Middle East,” he said. “We don’t have a civil society because the education system in Lebanon and the Arab world does not produce real educated people, real free people.”
“The university has failed to change the status quo. You go to Egypt, you go to Syria, you go to Lebanon, you go wherever you go in the Arab world, you will find the graduates, [but] the university graduates have made very little change, very little impact on their societies.
“Why? Because the education system they have been through does not change them radically as thinkers and as intellectuals,” he continued.
“One of the major reasons I always say that the Middle East has not made the big leap is because of the education system, the belief that education is a process whereby knowledge is transferred from the teacher to the student.
“That philosophy is very defective. My philosophy about education is that you educate people to make a new mind, and when you make a new mind, you make a new human being. That new human being will be capable of change. And the only way you can make a new mind is to train the mind and not to transfer knowledge just by repetition ... The job of the teacher in my philosophy is not to provide the student with knowledge; his job is to train the mind of the student.”
Indeed, Salem goes so far as to say that Lebanon’s university system has gotten worse rather than better since he was a student.
“It is worse,” he said, blaming the impact of the Lebanese Civil War, during which Salem left the country for the United States, for significantly decreasing academic freedom and distracting professors from their work.
Salem also railed against university leadership in the country.
“The leadership of the universities is very, very poor. You go for example to the Lebanese University and look at how the president is chosen: The president of the Lebanese University is chosen by the government leadership, so you can imagine what quality we have,” he said.
“With AUB very few Americans of big stature would accept to go to Beirut, so you know leadership has worsened in fact because of the war.”
However, Salem also identifies in the current context a moment of opportunity for Lebanon.
Anticipating the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad, he said: “This is an opportunity for the Lebanese, for the first time since 1952, to come together and do something special in Lebanon.”
Yet, he quickly added a warning: “I repeat as long we don’t separate religion from state, [as long as] we don’t separate religion from politics, we are going to continue to be sick.”
But, Salem is particularly adept at curing illness, and in his laboratories he claims to have learned much more than just how to battle cancerous cells.
“You know ... [in] my laboratories ... I have people from China, I have people from Russia, I have people from all over the world. They are also of different religions, different philosophies, different geographies. But when we come to work, we go together as scientists, as people, as human beings, and [we] work together for a noble cause like finding a cure for cancer. And the same thing [applies] in building a nation.”
So, Salem prescribes a cure for Lebanon: “We as people we should come together. Forget whether we come from the north or the south or the east or the west of Lebanon. Forget about whether we are Christians and Muslims, and try to build something good for all of us, for a Lebanon that believes in the equality of its citizens. A Lebanon that believes in you as far as your mind, not whether you are a specific religion or not.”