Man of the Middle East: Charles Malik
“You may win every battle, but if you lose the war of ideas, you will have lost the war. You may lose every battle, but if you win the war of ideas, you will have won the war. “ — Charles Malik
With Lebanon under duress, and in the news, my thoughts fly back to its happier times. When, in the first half of the 20th century, Lebanon was an economic haven, the playground of the Middle East.
Men and women from the entire region flocked to Beirut’s theaters and nightclubs, shopped in its luxury-laden warehouses.
And a giant of a man emerged from the mountains.
Philosopher, academic, diplomat, humanist and politician, Charles Habib Malik was born in 1906 in Btourram, a hamlet in the Mountains of Lebanon, then a tiny autonomous area within the Ottoman Empire.
He was the scion of a distinguished family: his father a doctor, his mother a judge, and an uncle, famous writer Farah Antun. Malik showed an early precocity already as a pupil of the American Mission School for Boys in the town of Tripoli where he concentrated and shone in mathematics and physics. As he grew older, so grew his intellectual interests, and he veered toward philosophy.
Malik attended and graduated from a number of universities, among them Harvard, where he later turned from student to teacher. Later still, he founded the department of philosophy at the American University in Beirut. Already as a student, he advocated and emphasized freedom of thought, conscience and expression. In whatever learning institution he found himself, he formed discussion groups of which he became the natural guide. He attracted attention as a potential leader.
The second half of the 1940s were not the Dickensian best and worst of times. But they were the brief optimistic post-World War II era, when hope was ripe for a new, just world — a world of peace and prosperity.
With the birth of the new international body, the United Nations, that was the belief and hope of millions at that time, Malik among them.
He was able and willing to put aside his academic studies and act to bring such a world into being.
Deeply steeped in world history, philosophy and politics, Charles Habib Malik became Lebanon’s first envoy to the nascent United Nations. This, despite an environment where political rank was often tied to tribal strength. Charles Malik was affiliated with Greek Orthodoxy — a Christian minority in Lebanon which constitutes about eight percent of the country’s total population.
He was one of the youngest delegates to sign the UN charter in 1945 when the UN was installed in its temporary seat in San Francisco.
Two years later, on that historic November 29, 1947, the international body was facing its first major hurdle. The atmosphere in the elegant General Assembly Hall was electric, the gallery of the UN permanent Manhattan home full — mostly with Jewish visitors. Every one, including myself, UN correspondent for the Indianapolis-published National Jewish Post, seemed to be holding his (or her) breath. Eyes were focused on the delegates who had not pronounced themselves.
Would the Partition Plan make it? I looked at the picturesque array of delegates, fixing my gaze on the delegate from Lebanon.
But Charles Malik had acceded to the other Arab states’ envoys who had formed a voting bloc on all issues, and joined their Nay. According to reliable information, Malik’s was a very reluctant Nay. It did not fit his humanistic egalitarian proclamations. Such as the one he made in his 1948 speech to the General Assembly :
The history of my country for centuries is precisely that of a small country struggling against all odds for the maintenance and strengthening of real freedom of thought and conscience. Innumerable persecuted minorities have found, throughout the ages, a most understanding haven in my country, so that the very basis of our existence is complete respect of differences of opinion and belief.
Despite the Arab vote, the UN passed its first test when the majority decided to vote for partition. Huge noisy applause followed the spokesman’s announcement, stopping only when admonished by him. What followed is history.
Eleven tumultuous years later, the year was 1958, Dr. Malik was president of the General Assembly’s 13th session. I remember him sitting in that hallowed hall: still, tall, now slightly stooped, exuding an air of calm wisdom. In his quiet way, he was an eloquent persuasive orator.
During his 20 years at the UN, he was an indefatigable champion of human rights. As ambassador of Lebanon to the United States he continued defending his credo.
One of his great achievements at the UN was the vital role he played in drafting the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt he had labored, together with Rene Cassin and an international committee of eight, until the declaration came to its fruition and was proclaimed by the UN body on December 10, 1948. Rene Cassin, the renowned French-Jewish juror, received that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Malik’s regard for the distaff half of humanity was inspired both by life at home and his work abroad. His marriage was a happy one. About his wife, Eva Habib Badr, he is quoted as saying: “She is wonderful. I am not worthy of her shoes.”
And he greatly admired Eleanor Roosevelt which led him to proclaim, “The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.”
His career did not include only studies and service in foreign lands. At home in Lebanon, he taught at the American University and served later as member of the national parliament, acting at the same time as both Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of National Education and Fine Arts.
Just as he had fought in the political arena for his ideals, fighting for freedom for each individual and building a bridge between the Middle East and Western cultures, so, too, did religious life engage him to defend his beliefs. He acted as president of the World Council on Christian Education and vice president of the United World Council of Bible Societies. His brother, Catholic priest Father Ramzi Habib Malik, was known as a man who spent his life attempting to reconciliate Christians and Jews.
At home, he joined The Lebanese Front, a Lebanese group defending Christianity in overwhelmingly Muslim Lebanon.
He was not devoid of mirthless humor:
“That is why diplomats smile: it is not hypocrisy — it is a sort of metaphysical awareness of the human impossibility of their task.”
Charles Malik died in 1987 in Beirut, aged 81.
He left behind a legacy of a fighter for human rights in the person of his son, Dr. Habib Malik, associate professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University of Beirut. His books and scholarly papers are on exhibit at the Library of Congress; his personal diaries and letters are preserved at the University of Notre Dame in Lebanon.
The seed of intercultural relationships had been planted; it became a fragile plant in turbulent Lebanon. In a September 2021 speech to the UN General Assembly, Michel Aoun, president of Lebanon, appealed to the international community to help finish the Academy of Human Encounters and Cultural Interaction he said had already begun to be built in Beirut.
It is another concrete part of the legacy of Dr. Charles Habib Malik.