I did not understand the precise nature of the conflict in Lebanon until I recently read the new book “Cancer, Love and the Politics of Hope – The Life and Vision of Philip Salem, M.D.” collected by Frances Mourani and Boutros Indari.
In this book, a collection of speeches, interviews and editorials, Salem argues that the root of the problem in Lebanon is not religious intolerance as it might seem to many people outside the country; the root of the problem is the lack of political leadership. Salem is not only recognized as a top cancer physician, he is also a well-known public figure and writer, as well an astute observer of the Arab world.
Salem suffered the cruelties of the war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, and fell in love with his country, which became his passion. He has spoken and published extensively about the plight of Lebanon and its conflicts, as well as about the Lebanese and their agony. He is greatly concerned with examining ways for Lebanon to emerge from its conflicts as a country that is both sovereign and independent.
In their introduction to the section of the book that is focused on Lebanon, the authors write “among contemporary Lebanese thinkers, few have embraced the role of a visionary as profoundly as Philip Salem. A few for that matter have been [as] insistent as Philip Salem that the primary role of the intellectual should be to generate the kind of meaningful debate which leads to social and political change.” Here, Salem is the doctor attempting to make the right diagnosis and prescribe the right treatment for his native country.
To Salem, Lebanon is a country crucified between Syria and Israel. Syria, before it descended into its devastating war, sought to absorb Lebanon, a process that began in 1976 when its army entered the country. Israel, in turn, is fearful about the model that Lebanon represents, one that is the antithesis of that existing in Israel. While Israel is mainly a state for the Jews, Lebanon is a state for all religions. It is a symbol of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism, a place where East meets West, and where Islam embraces Christianity.
At the same time, Salem believes that because of political chaos and a lack of leadership, Lebanon has become a hostage not only to the Arab-Israeli conflict but also to the more recent conflict between the West and Iran. He considers the primary cause of war as the failure of the Lebanese to produce a political leadership that could carry Lebanon into a more successful future. Salem considers the Lebanese sectarian political system, despite the fact that it creates conditions for valuable coexistence, a prescription for disaster in the way it is applied. Consequently, he has called for the separation of religion from state and believes that a nonviolent civic movement for change is imperative to challenge the status quo in the country.
Lebanon to Salem is not only a political entity, it is, more importantly, a cultural one. It offers a model that, at its best, can embody freedom, religion and cultural tolerance. That is why Pope John Paul II once described Lebanon as “more than a country, it is a message.” Although Salem is committed to Arab causes, he nevertheless refuses to allow Lebanon to dissolve itself into the wider Arab world and in that way lose its distinctiveness or sovereignty.
With regard to Arabs in America, Salem calls on Arab-Americans to get engaged in the process of shaping America. He believes that the only way that Arab-Americans can make a difference is by contributing to culture and science in the United States.
Hailing from the village of Bturram in the northern Lebanese district of Koura, Salem has become one of the top physicians in the United States. In that way he has followed the path that he has prescribed for fellow immigrants from the Middle East to the United States. He is not only a physician, therefore a man of science, he is also an intellectual committed to his country of origin and to the thoughts and feelings it has provoked in him – a man of mind and heart.
Denny Angelle is a veteran journalist and writer. His work has appeared in Time, Esquire, The Houston Chronicle, and The Dallas Morning News. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.