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An Exceptional American

Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014.

Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By LEE SMITH
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It’s hardly any surprise that he supported the Iraq war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The attacks that I suspect stung him the most were not for his advocacy of American military might, or his proximity to American power, but rather the accusation that he was acting on sectarian impulses: Saddam had hunted Shiites, Ajami was a Shiite, and therefore this American intellectual incapable of escaping his Middle Eastern identity would back any effort to topple a Sunni strongman and undo the Sunni order of the region.

As Tony Badran wrote in a tribute to Ajami in the Arabic-language magazine Al Majalla, “He was not, as his opponents claimed, seeking to drag American power behind a narrow cause of an ethnic or sectarian group. This sinister charge is an old trope of accusing a minority or ethnic pressure group of embroiling the United States in a foreign war on behalf of this group. In other words, it is, at the heart of it, a charge that Ajami’s priorities were not American.”

The charge, whether leveled at Ajami or at American Jews supportive of the Iraq war, was nonsense. And yet it has to be said that Ajami was misunderstood not only by his critics but also by many of his admirers. If the former called him a Shiite apologist and accused him of airing the Arabs’ dirty linen in public, the latter applauded him for what they thought was his speaking hard truths about his native land and its troubled peoples. In reality he was just describing the ideological movements that the region’s rulers and regimes had used to enslave their subjects. Arab nationalism and Islamism are corporatist enterprises scarcely less monstrous than modernity’s two most famous totalitarian regimes, Nazism and Communism.

“An idea that has dominated the political consciousness of modern Arabs is nearing its end, if it is not already a thing of the past,” Ajami wrote in his seminal 1978 essay for Foreign Affairs, “The End of Pan-Arabism.” The idea had failed the Arabs, as he further detailed in The Arab Predicament, and Ajami rejected it personally. Some of his admirers have come to see it as a conversion of sorts, but I think that’s not quite right.

Ajami’s drama is still played out repeatedly throughout the Middle East—spirited young men, and to a lesser extent women, embrace a doctrine that promises to salve their wounds and resolve their ambivalence about a West that designs and makes all they desire, while they have no part in its manufacture. Arab nationalism teaches that the triumph of the West has come at the expense of the Arabs. It is a doctrine of resentment and grievance, a young man’s sad and angry creed.

Giving this up isn’t a conversion as much as the shedding of a hard shell. It requires recognizing that, first, Arab nationalism is a creed of fear and weakness, and second that America is worthy of one’s strength, vulnerability, openness. The young man finds that the reasons he was attracted to America in the first place—knowledge, work, opportunity, mobility—are manifestations of a deeper truth: Its people really are free to think and do what they want. This is why Ajami couldn’t abide identity politics or the culture of grievance. If you saw America not as a living patrimony shared by free men and women but as a down payment on an entitlement never to be fully collected, then you were either an ungrateful child or a charismatic conman.

Accordingly, Ajami was among the most astute critics of the current White House. “Mr. Obama has shown scant regard for precedent in American history. To him, and to the coterie around him, his presidency was a radical discontinuity in American politics,” Ajami wrote in 2013. He’d understood Obama as early as 2008, he explained, because “from the very beginning of Mr. Obama’s astonishing rise, I felt that I was witnessing something old and familiar. My advantage owed nothing to any mastery of American political history. I was guided by my immersion in the political history of the Arab world and of a life studying Third World societies.”

Ajami was too modest. Immersion in Arab political history and the study of Third World societies hardly guarantees political insight, never mind wisdom. What he knew of the Middle East and its political furies he understood from the perspective of human freedom, that is, as an American. His clarity in describing both the Middle East and America was a function of character. Where these two lands, two ideas, meet were his main topics in The Foreigner’s Gift and The Syrian Rebellion. I believe that his support of the Syrian rebellion, and his writing on it, will constitute the core of an enduring moral legacy.

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