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A 'rare' Arab intellectual: Fouad Ajami (1945-2014)

Ajami condemned autocratic Arab governments and called on the West to confront what he called a 'culture of terrorism'.

Last updated: 24 Jun 2014 12:13
Joseph A Kechichian

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).
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Ajami was that rare Arab-American intellectual who valued the cultural attributes of both homelands, writes Kechichian [WireImage]

Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian who fancied such terms as "Islamofascism" and "Crisis of Islam" and who often wondered what went wrong with the Arabs, once described Fouad Ajami as "both a Shiite from South Lebanon and an American political scientist". Ajami was much more than that, of course, as he attempted to share his understanding of what occurred in the Arab world. Ajami trained hundreds, if not thousands, of budding scholars and helped place them in advisory roles to senior government officials. He did this in ways that surpassed what Lewis and others fathomed without disparagement, even as he remained objective. As a trained academic, his significant contributions added value, though his core concerns about the direction that Arab autocrats pursued, created existential dilemmas.

Fouad Ajami was born on September 19, 1945 in Arnoun, Lebanon, not far from the imposing Beaufort Crusader Castle first built in 1139 AD that, at 1,000 metres, overlooks the Litani River, which was the scene of atrocious Israeli aerial bombardments for at least three decades. Like most Shia Muslims in the south, his father worked the land and, over time, the Ajamis who probably migrated from Iran, became prosperous tobacco farmers. When he was four, the family moved to Beirut, an increasingly prosperous capital with solid education opportunities though Ajami visited his ancestral home frequently.

In one of his most revealing books, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey (1998), Ajami claimed that he was taunted by Sunni children in Beirut schools allegedly for being a Shia, as well as for being short. This was not uncommon as Lebanon's multi-cultural but quite intolerant environment produced numerous similar situations. In the event, and like most engaged youngsters of the 1950s, Ajami embraced Arab nationalism just before his father moved the family to the United States. The year was 1963, four years before the devastating 1967 war that buried Arab nationalism and mistakenly dismissed George Antonius' opus The Arab Awakening.

Ajami embraced US culture with aplomb, attended Eastern Oregon College (now University), earned a doctorate at the University of Washington in Seattle and accepted a teaching position at Princeton in New Jersey. In 1980, the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University named him director of Middle East Studies in Washington DC, though he commuted from his beloved New York. In 2011, he joined the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he passed away on June 22 from cancer. He was 68 and is survived by his wife, Michelle.

Epochal transformations

If Lewis delved into minutia, Ajami concentrated on epochal transformations that rocked the Arab world after World War II. His first two books set the tone for impeccable investigations that, among other things, examined The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967 (1981), and the fate that befell The Vanishing Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon(1986).

Ajami probed the discontent that spread throughout the Arab World after the 1967 War, as he indicted pseudo leaders who allegedly backed Arab interests while in reality, he believed, they were little more than shallow tin pots.

In the first tome, Ajami probed the discontent that spread throughout the Arab world after the 1967 war, as he indicted pseudo leaders who allegedly backed Arab interests while in reality, he believed, they were little more than shallow tin pots. His Predicament explored the panic that set in after 1967 and that have illustrated Arab vulnerabilities ever since.

His next book, by far his best contribution, profiled Musa Sadr, a cleric who created the Amal Movement and who legitimised the demands made by Lebanon's Shia Muslims long before successors sold Sadr's soul to Arab and Iranian potentates. It was under Sadr that the downtrodden - a term in use in Lebanon before it gained notoriety in post-1979 Revolutionary Iran - gained a clear and non-sectarian voice. Ajami revealed how Sadr prayed inside Christian cathedrals and helped define a true vision for Lebanon, though his premature disappearance in Libya in August 1978 ended that quest.

Ajami regretted what happened to Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war and expressed his sorrows in a moving introduction to Eli Reed's photographic essay ["Beirut: City of Regrets" (1988)].

He never looked back to Lebanon but returned to his familiar, post-colonial Arab-condition theme in The Dream Palace of the Arabs,  in which Ajami concluded that Antonius had erred. Whether the reflection was something less than an outright condemnation of Arab nationalism and whether Ajami was correct that beyond Palestine Arabs betrayed themselves by initiating a period of oppression and poverty were subjects that will be debated for years to come. Suffice to say that Antonius cannot - indeed must not - be blamed for the rise of Arab potentates who donned the cloak of justice but opted to practise the opposite. 

Unlike intellectuals caught in dictatorial webs, Ajami enjoyed the freedoms of his adopted country to narrate and analyse deteriorating conditions in the Arab world, where violences - yes, in the plural - defined visions and inspired dream palaces. In time, some of these dreams became nightmares, though in the post-9/11 period, they also dragged in a superpower that unleashed its wrath with a vengeance.

In the immediate period that followed the devastating terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Americans heard Ajami's views on CBS News, CNN and the various PBS programs including Charlie Rose and NewsHour. His guttural pronunciation of Arabic names, distinctive beard, frequent quotes from English literature - he loved the writer Joseph Conrad - and authoritative opinions, all endeared him to vast audiences.

Encouraged US invasion of Iraq

An avid supporter of the George Bush administration, Ajami encouraged the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, advised Vice President Dick Cheney, and frequently briefed both the-then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as well as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. In short, the careful academic became a government expert, as well as a popular broadcast commentator on Middle East affairs.

Whether his 2002 invocation that Iraqis would greet the US military presence in Iraq with joy was premature remained controversial as Ajami perceived Washington as a benign occupier. After the 2011 US military withdrawal, however, Ajami lamented that successive Iraqi leaders, especially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, squandered several opportunities to unify the country and forge genuine reconciliation.

Whether his 2002 invocation that Iraqis would greet the US military presence in Iraq with joy was premature remained controversial as Ajami perceived Washington as a benign occupier. After the 2011 US military withdrawal, however, Ajami lamented that successive Iraqi leaders, especially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, squandered several opportunities to unify the country and forge genuine reconciliation.

A week ago, in what turned out to be his last opinion essay in the Wall Street Journal, Ajami placed the blame for the collapse of Iraq squarely at the White House's door.

"Two men bear direct responsibility for the mayhem engulfing Iraq," wrote Ajami, "Barack Obama and Nouri al-Maliki," which reflected his increasingly negative views of Obama. In fact, Ajami believed that Obama failed in his professed duty to provide global leadership, as he underscored: "Today, with his unwillingness to use US military force to save Syrian children or even to pull Iraq back from the brink of civil war, the erstwhile leader of the Free World is choosing, yet again, to look the other way."

Irrespective of his views of Iraq, and as an American who was pro-Arab without being anti-Israel, Ajami perceived the Syrian rebellion as a watershed development that promised to transform the entire region. His 2012 book on The Syrian Rebellion stood as a condemnation of autocratic Arab governments and called on Western democracies to confront what he called a "culture of terrorism". Although a Shia Muslim by birth, Ajami saw Iran's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime as an error, which highlighted Tehran's weakness because Arab Damascus, he posited, was further isolated from the rest of its natural Arab environment.

A secular American who espoused the values of the republic, Ajami was that rare Arab-American intellectual who valued the cultural attributes of both homelands, even if he concluded that true modernisation could not tolerate autocracy. To his credit, he understood that dramatic shifts were under way in Western societies too, as he compared - in his inimical way - those who swooned around Obama with the delirious crowds that flocked towards Egypt's former president Gamal Abdel Nasser throughout the 1960s.

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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