I was genuinely devastated to learn of Fouad Ajami’s death late last night. I think it was more shocking because nobody had known he was ill. I had noticed the decreased frequency of his columns in the Wall Street Journal but he was not a regular in any sense, writing one or two a month, so it was not wholly out of the ordinary and then he had returned last week for what it now transpires was the final time.
It is odd, in many ways, to feel sadness for the passing of somebody you do not know, and of course on examination your grief turns out to be for the loss of ideas not strictly the person. You feel sorry for the family of the deceased but you cannot—and it would be indecent to pretend to—feel their sadness.
I’ve spent the greater part of the last few years reading about (and visiting) the Middle East, examining its history and the social, political, and religious movements that led it to this dreadful predicament where its furies have burst its borders and engulfed the West. Bernard Lewis is the inescapable source for this inquiry, and his intellectual progeny, Ajami and Reuel Marc Gerecht, as well as people from the region who speak honestly like Kanan Makiya, have had the most impact on my thinking. With the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion, which has consumed so much of my mental energy in the last three years, and Ajami’s focus on that, I have found myself following his work more closely still.
Born in Lebanon in 1945 to a poor, Shi’a family, Ajami struggled in Middle East Studies Departments against a (Sunni) Arabism that marginalised the Shi’a—he once described keeping his Shi’a origins hidden as best he could so that he could not simply be dismissed as a sectarian; as he noted it was to no avail—and then later he struggled against the disciples of Edward Said, whose Orientalism became the dominant text of these departments. It’s central contention was that all work done by the West on the Arab world was done in service of imperialism and, in its most infamous quote,
“[E]very European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
Lewis tried to point out that this was as absurd as saying that only Greeks could study ancient Greece, and Makiya noted the need for Arabs to “unlearn” the ideas in Said’s populist, anti-Western tract. (Lewis also noted the fact that Said was just wrong: the intellectual departments studying the Arab word began centuries before the Western imperial reach into the world of Islam, when the Islamic Empire was intruding into Europe.) But none of it did any good, and to the present day Said’s followers have a strangle-hold on these departments.
Perhaps more than any other intellectual transgression committed against the predominant Arabist ethos was Ajami’s admiration for Israel. The curiosity so evident in his writing led him to visit Israel, and he describes making a furtive first trip, crossing a great taboo. It was necessary, he wrote, to “interpret Arab society without the great alibi that Israel had become for every Arab failing under the sun,” and he could see that more clearly after visiting the State. On the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s founding, Ajami wrote: “Israel has held up a mirror for the Arabs, who have not liked what they have seen.” The disciples of Edward Said never would forgive him for this.
In the last few years Ajami has perhaps become best known as one of the most sophisticated intellectuals to favour the invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein. He was unrepentant about this. On the eve of the invasion, he wrote:
“The sacking of a terrible regime with such a pervasive cult of terror may offer Iraqis and Arabs a break with the false gifts of despotism.”
In 2008, Ajami re-iterated a case he had made many times and would make many more times:
“Kabul and the war against the Taliban had not sufficed, for those were Arabs who struck America on 9/11. A war of deterrence had to be waged against Arab radicalism, and Saddam Hussein had drawn the short straw.”
The moral and strategic concerns that made Iraq such a perfect war for idealists and realists alike were both present in Ajami’s thinking, and he made the case better than most.
Ajami’s writings on becoming an American were also rather different from the modern fetish of identity politics and group-grievance. Ajami wrote of being “stripped of all religious devotion,” which made Christmas an alien event to him—and the civic religion of sports held no appeal. But he had found in the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving “celebrations of Americanism, great assimilative affirmations,” that were more to his taste. The culture of anti-Americanism that can form a backdrop to even the most Westernised Arabs was wholly absent from Ajami. Perhaps not incidentally this also meant that Ajami had a sense of humour that seems denied to most of his foes. He once wrote, in a column reflecting on the “hype” of anti-Americanism,
“The Shiites have their annual ritual of 10 days of self-flagellation and penance, but this liberal narrative is ceaseless.”
If anyone interested in the region has not read Ajami, they should try it. They will see instantly the difference, especially as compared with other people who originate there. As Gerecht put it, Ajami, Makiya, Ali Allawi and so very few others “are such surprises when one first reads them because they focus more on what Arabs do to themselves and less on what foreigners have done to Arabs.” Ajami wrote about the Arabs with enough respect to grant them their own agency, to give them ownership of their own history. He also had enough respect to believe they did not have “tyranny in their DNA“.
Ajami was perhaps a little too overoptimistic—at least in the short-term—about the revolts that broke on the region at the end of 2010, writing in the spring of 2011: “The Arab Spring has simply overwhelmed the world of the jihadists.” Both the tyrants and the jihadists, caught off-balance by that wave of rebellion, have recovered their footing and there has been a scorched earth reply from the ancien regime. Still, Ajami was correct to remind those harping on the chaos of Libya that the old order was nothing to lament, and in the long-run he is sure to be vindicated: these revolts have exposed the brittle heart of despotism, that nothing could be more unstable than dictatorship, and the jihadists’ vision cannot compete with the idea of popular sovereignty.
The world is much the poorer for Ajami’s loss, and the world of Middle East Studies especially. He is likely irreplaceable.