The Nonviolent Revolutionary
U professor Chibli Mallat’s mission is to prove laws are more powerful than guns.
In late 2005, a law professor named Chibli Mallat announced that he was running for president of Lebanon. Since no one had ever actually mounted a presidential campaign and taken it to the public, people were by turns surprised, dismissive, energized, and bedazzled.
“Chibli Mallat is running for president of Lebanon, and I support him all the way,” gushed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as the campaign progressed. “[He is] exactly the new kind of leader that the Arab world needs.”
A few months later, though, Lebanon was at war with Israel, and the would-be election was history. But Mallat continued working behind the scenes for his ideals of nonviolent change. These days, he teaches in the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, where he is a Presidential Professor and “a unique combination of scholar and activist,” says Hiram Chodosh, former dean of the U’s law school.
“Intrinsically, he’s a scholar. But he’s driven at times into the public sphere because he cares so deeply about the conditions around him,” says Chodosh, who stepped down as dean earlier this year to become president of Claremont McKenna College in California.
Since 2007, Utah has been the safe haven where Mallat can teach, write, and direct Right to Nonviolence, an organization he founded with this mission: to advance constitutionalism, justice, and nonviolence across the Middle East. He still maintains a law office in Beirut that also houses and provides legal counsel for Amnesty International’s Middle East regional office, which he helped establish in 1999.
Chodosh calls Mallat “the leading expert on Middle Eastern law in the world,” but it is “aggressive nonviolence” that now captures Mallat’s intellectual and human rights passions, as well as his attentions as an author. He describes his latest book in progress, The Philosophy of Nonviolence, as “a manifesto for the Middle East nonviolent revolution.”
He holds onto his beliefs, even as the increasingly violent and sectarian war in Syria has spilled over into his native Lebanon.
“They say if you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been studying it long enough,” is the way former British ambassador Frances Guy described the beleaguered country that is Mallat’s first home. The sentiment is also sometimes expressed as “If you’re not confused by Lebanese politics, then the subject has not been explained to you properly.”
The small country is the most religiously diverse in the Middle East, a sectarian stew of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Maronite Catholics, and Druze. Lebanon is also home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian refugees and now an estimated million Syrians who have fled that country’s ongoing war. Sandwiched between Syria and Israel, and home during the 1970s to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and since then to Hezbollah, Lebanon has been the unlucky place where all these players have duked it out, aided at times by homegrown militias.
“My generation’s youth was stolen by violence, and I think that marked me a lot,” says Mallat, who was 15 years old when initial clashes between Palestinians and right-wing Christian Phalangists turned into a full-scale religious war.
Although some of his friends eventually joined the fighting, Mallat never did. “It might have been cowardice,” he says, but then he offers an alternate explanation by way of a story. During the early months of the war, the family’s house was robbed, and the only thing stolen was the gun he occasionally used to hunt birds. When he discovered this, he says, “in a way it was a great relief, and I couldn’t touch a gun afterwards, and certainly not to shoot a bird or anything else.”
He realized “sort of a sense of the ugliness of violence, even against poor birds, or perhaps especially against birds,” he says. “Retrospectively, I see the reaction that would guide my thinking, to take nonviolence as what I call now ‘the midwife of history’ more seriously.” (The phrase is pure Mallat: an unspoken literary reference to Karl Marx’s declaration that violent revolution has been the midwife of history.)
The Mallats were cultured and well-connected. His grandfather and uncle were celebrated poets; his father, a lawyer, served as a cabinet minister and first president of Lebanon’s constitutional court, and helped establish the first Arab human-rights organization.
When fighting intensified in Beirut in the mid-1970s, the family moved to its second home in the mountains. When the war followed them there, they moved to Paris. After Mallat’s mother and father returned to Beirut, he and his older sister stayed on in Paris to finish high school, living on their own. He remembers it as a difficult and thrilling time. “It was an extraordinary intellectual moment,” he says. “I learned so much that was mind-opening, of extraordinary dimension.” His introduction to the work of the great French philosophers particularly was a revelation.
During a lull in the civil war in the late 1970s, he moved back to Beirut to study law at the Université Saint-Joseph and, simultaneously, English literature at Lebanese American University. Then Israel invaded Lebanon, the pro-Israeli Lebanese president was assassinated, and nearby shelling shook the law school building during Mallat’s final exams. On a whim, he had already applied to a master’s program in international and comparative law at Georgetown University in the United States, and deteriorating conditions in Lebanon convinced him to attend. Seven years later, he also received a doctorate in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
By then, he was itching to take on some of the world’s most egregious dictators, not by force, but in the courts, through human-rights trials that eventually became his hallmark. “Dictatorship is a crime against humanity,” Mallat says. “Every dictator in the world should know that he is going to be tried.”
In London, he befriended many of Iraq’s exiled opposition leaders, helping found the International Committee for a Free Iraq in 1991, and later INDICT, a group that built a war crimes case against Saddam Hussein. A year before the United States invaded Iraq, Mallat helped launch the Democratic Iraq Initiative, calling for global pressure to force Saddam to step down, in lieu of an invasion.
The idea was to promote opposition leaders, cut off transportation routes for the country’s military and intelligence, pursue Saddam’s indictment for war crimes, and deploy human rights monitors during the transition that followed. The initiative “was very close to being implemented,” Mallat recollects. “It ended up with me meeting with [U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz in his office two weeks before the war and convincing him that the alternative [to invasion] was better.” In the end, of course—in part, Mallat says, because the Arab League wouldn’t go on record in favor of it—the initiative was dropped. “We would have gotten rid of Saddam with far less violence,” he says. “It would have been an extraordinary model of change in the Middle East.”
Justice, but without violence. Even when Saddam was tried in 2005 and 2006 for crimes against humanity, Mallat opposed the death penalty.
Picture Mallat in his office at the U’s law school: As he talks, he runs his fingers over a necklace of beads. They might be Muslim prayer beads. Or Catholic rosary beads. A man from Lebanon could be either of those religions or a dozen others. Actually, Mallat says with a smile, the beads are purely secular: Holding them helps him not bite his fingernails.
In a country rife with religious animosities, Mallat is pointedly nonsectarian. He was raised Maronite Catholic but, he says, “was never devout.” He is an expert on Muslim law and is admired among Shia Muslims for both his book about Iraqi cleric Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and a successful lawsuit against Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi on behalf of Shia imam Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978. (The lawsuit verdict was a symbolic victory, since Gaddafi never traveled to Lebanon for the trial.) Mallat is also friends with principal members of the Syrian opposition, most of them Sunni, and is close to Lebanon Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
In addition to the high-profile cases against Saddam and Gaddafi, Mallat also was one of three lawyers to bring charges against former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The case against Sharon and several members of a Lebanese Christian militia group was tried in a Belgian court and prosecuted by Mallat on behalf of survivors of the 1982 massacre of at least 1,300 people in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor in 2003, but a change in Belgian law, disallowing such lawsuits unless they involved Belgian citizens, later prompted a Belgian appeals court to reject the lawsuit.
Rami Khouri, a syndicated columnist and director of a public policy institute at the American University of Beirut, calls Mallat “extremely bold and dynamic and courageous,” for his efforts such as the Sharon case. “Chibli has always been that person who challenges conventional thinking,” Khouri says.
In the mid-2000s, Mallat became a key figure in the movement known as the Cedar Revolution, a nonviolent attempt to overthrow both the nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon by Syria’s al-Assad family and the presidency of Syrian-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. On March 14, 2005—exactly a month after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (an assassination many blamed on Syria)—a million Lebanese (a quarter of the country’s population) marched peacefully through Beirut. Among the thousands of families waving flags were Mallat, his wife, Nayla Chalhoub Mallat, and their two sons.
Fourteen-thousand Syrian troops did indeed pull out a month later, but the opposition continued to complain that Syria still pulled the strings in Lebanon. Mallat’s unorthodox run for the presidency (in Lebanon, the president is chosen by the Parliament from a short list of sectarian and military leaders) was an attempt, as Mallat says, to “remove the dictator” and to set up a special tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination.
Trudi Hodges, executive director of Right to Nonviolence, says it was an innovative move. “He launched—really for the first time in the Middle East— this media-savvy and somewhat edgy campaign staffed by youths and others of all religions and political affiliations,” she says. “He developed a detailed platform and ran a modern, professional campaign, and encouraged other candidates to do the same.”
Mallat gave up his bid for the presidency in the summer of 2006 as Hezbollah attacked Israel (an attack Mallat had opposed). He then moved with his family to the United States, where he had secured a teaching job at Princeton University. He has since taught at Harvard and Yale universities, and the University of Virginia. He has also taught at Beirut Islamic University and is still on the faculty of Université Saint-Joseph.
At the University of Utah, in addition to teaching, he has been senior adviser to the Global Justice Project: Iraq, a legal think tank that has worked with the Iraqi government and judiciary to bring about legal reform. This year, he will direct the school’s Global Justice Think Tank with selected U law students. This past summer, he traveled to Libya, where he attended a conference aimed at reconciling Islamic law and international human-rights standards, and to Yemen, to help write that country’s constitution.
Most of his work, says Right to Nonviolence’s Hodges, “isn’t the type of work that necessarily captures the public imagination or garners headlines, but the impact may be far more reaching if one is advising on constitutional solutions, for example, or litigating a case of crimes against humanity that might serve as a precedent for later work.”
Nonviolence is an enigma, according to Mallat. “I find myself the philosophical disciple of Christ, whilst showing that Christ was wrong, as well,” he says. “Absolute nonviolence can only happen during a revolution.” After that, it’s necessary to adopt the rule of law—and the law, he says, “is inherently violent.” He points, for example, to its insistence on locking up (or sometimes even killing) criminals. It’s a point of view that may incense some readers, but Mallat says he is eager to have that debate.
At heart, he’s a philosopher. It is “philosophy, not law or any other discipline, which stands at the apex for those of us who seek in the same inevitable breath to understand and live their surrounding world as revolutionary change,” he writes in the introduction to his new book.
In between his trip to the Mideast and the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, Mallat spent most of his days working on the book, spreading out all his papers and reference books across the family’s dining room table for weeks on end.
He hopes the book will help the Middle East take the best of the Arab Spring and move forward. Of course, he says with the slightest grin, “everybody who writes a book thinks that it’s the one book that will change the course of human history.”
“It’s good to think that,” he adds. “So you put yourself to a high test.”
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.