Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, one of the most significant and articulate Palestinian-American intellectuals of his generation, died on May 23, 2001 at his home in Ramallah, Palestine, at the age of 72. A scholar, educator, activist and institution builder in both North America and the Middle East, Abu-Lughod was a charismatic and passionate advocate for Palestinian human and political rights, as well as for progressive politics throughout the Middle East.
Abu-Lughod was a man of great integrity. He was warm, generous, urbane, erudite and funny, a wonderful storyteller and a pragmatic visionary who was able to pull the best out of people with his great enthusiasm and boundless energy. He was the quintessential teacher, always willing to share his knowledge, to challenge his listeners’ preconceptions and to support younger scholars with his time and insights.
Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was born in Jaffa, Palestine, on February 15, 1929. On May 3, 1948, as Jaffa fell, he reluctantly left the city of his birth. Eventually, he made his way to the United States where he quickly earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Illinois and, in 1957, a Ph.D. from Princeton University. Abu-Lughod worked with UNESCO in Egypt (creating a relationship with the organization that extended throughout his life) and at Smith College and McGill University before joining the faculty of Northwestern University in 1967, serving as chair of the political science department between 1985 and 1988.
Abu-Lughod was absolutely committed to the possibility of Israelis and Palestinian Arabs coexisting equally in the land of Palestine. “It isn’t normal for people in the Middle East to live in perpetual conflict,” he stated emphatically. “This cannot last forever. There must be a political solution, but it must be one that does not condemn the Palestinians to a position of subordination to Israel.” These ideas were further developed in his classes, his frequent public lectures and his numerous authored and edited books, several of which have become classics.
Despite his great skills as an academic, Abu-Lughod was not content only to lecture and write, maintaining that “Palestinians [must] not remain victims; we must become doers.” Indeed, Abu-Lughod was politically active his entire life, beginning as a student when he demonstrated against the British presence in Palestine. Abu-Lughod was a member of the Palestine National Council between 1977 and 1991, and lent his voice and talents to numerous Palestinian organizations and initiatives around the world. He was one of the founders of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates in 1968 and, along with his friend Edward Said, established the multidisciplinary journal Arab Studies Quarterly. As a result of his high visibility and stature, Abu-Lughod and Said were asked to meet with Secretary of State George Shultz in March 1988 as part of initial US moves toward recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In 1992, Abu-Lughod returned to the Middle East, settling in Ramallah. During the nine years he resided in the West Bank, Abu-Lughod continued to work on behalf of Palestinian educational, social and cultural development. He taught political science at Birzeit University and for several years served as the institution’s vice president. In that capacity he initiated the development of a graduate faculty, beginning with master’s programs in international studies and in education. Due in large part to Abu-Lughod’s efforts, Birzeit now offers more than a dozen graduate programs.
Between 1995 and 1997, Abu-Lughod headed the Curriculum Development Center that was responsible for developing an independent Palestinian national school. He then created the al-Qattan Foundation for Educational Research, devoted to strengthening education at all levels in Palestine. At his death, he was also deeply involved in preliminary steps to establish a national library and a Museum of the Palestinian Memory that would trace Palestinian lives from pre-history until the present.
Always a political independent, Abu-Lughod was critical of the ossification of the Palestinian bureaucracy that he observed in the years following the Oslo accords and deeply troubled by the autocratic elements within the government. Yet he never gave up working for a free, independent and democratic Palestine.