By Ahmad Mohsen
Al-Akhbar: Lebanon’s Université Saint-Joseph (USJ), founded by Jesuits over a century ago, experienced a bout of sectarian tensions after student elections in November that threatened to rip the university apart.
Following the sectarian-laden student elections that took place in mid-November on USJ campus, several incidents of violence took place, pitting Hezbollah-affiliated Shia students against their Lebanese Forces and Phalangist Christian counterparts, leading to the university closing its doors for a day to cool rising tempers.
On the one side, Lebanese Forces and Phalangist students repeatedly provoked Shia students with slogans maintaining that USJ was “Bachir Gemayel’s university,” and that they defeated the “terrorists” in the elections, raising the flag of al-Nusra Front and telling students, “Hezbollah wants to force you to wear the chador.”
As for the other side, Amal and Hezbollah students deny their fellow Christian students the suffering their predecessors endured as a result of what they call the “Syrian occupation of Lebanon.” They, too, have their heroes, whose pictures they like to display on their cars and on campus. They, too, have made the mistake of allowing the kind of tensions prevalent on the streets of Beirut to enter the university.
But the university’s history is full of examples of coexistence that have no resemblance to what is happening today, to which the administration responded by insisting that the university is “open to all,” in contrast to its narrow identity as a university set up by French Catholic missionaries as a counter to the Protestant American University of Beirut (AUB).
Both universities, despite their orientalist roots, came to accept students from all backgrounds, radically changing their identities, particularly over the past few decades. In the early 1950s, for example, when the communists played a significant role on campus, a large number of USJ students participated in nationwide strikes calling for the establishment of a national university.
At the time, the university was a place where social experimentation of this kind dominated student life, as opposed to today’s situation, with the university increasingly reflecting the country’s sectarian divide. Despite this, many students reject the idea that the university belongs to this or that political party, and refuse to be part of either side of the equation.
There are some exceptions to the general trend, with students on both sides of the divide admitting that attending USJ has opened their eyes, with one Hezbollah supporter saying that he met students at the university “who were wronged by the Syrian intelligence,” relaying to them “our own painful experience with the Israelis in the South.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.