The Magazine

An Exceptional American

Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014.

Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By LEE SMITH
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Over the course of the last year, I had the great fortune to get to know Fouad. Last July, he and Charles Hill, the student of American grand strategy, invited me to participate in a colloquium at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto on the Middle East. Not surprisingly, Syria was a main topic of conversation, and at one point Fouad remarked how much it would have hurt his late mother to see him support a Sunni-led rebellion. He said that he and his wife had traveled to Turkey to reach the Syrian border, where they had provided assistance to a number of Syrian refugees. One of the men there thanked him, and then started cursing his sorry fate and those responsible for it, Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran—the abominable Shiites. 

I imagine the stream of invective must have reminded Fouad of his childhood, the anti-Shiite slurs and prejudice. Twice, he said, his family had been forbidden to enter Beirut to live there. The Struggle for Mastery in the Fertile Crescent concludes with his lament for a community left at the gates of hell by its own leaders. “It would be a singular tale of loss and sorrow if Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and the newly empowered Shia warlords in Iraq were to sully Shiism with their dark deeds, taking away from it the sense of mercy that was always its guiding light.”

His work is scored with such sympathies, not only for his own family and the sect he was born into, but for others as well. He loathed the Assad regime but felt for the Alawite community it drew from, their past isolation and poverty, their hardships. At the end of The Syrian Rebellion, he wrote about the Alawite girls pressed into virtual slavery to “families with means to feed the girls’ families back home.”

There was room enough in his imagination for everyone, even the man who stood before him on the Syrian border cursing the Shiites. “I couldn’t really say anything,” Fouad explained later. “The guy had lost everything, and it would’ve made him feel bad.”

This episode and his response defined the trajectory of his intellectual and moral career. He was from the Middle East and concerned with it, but no longer of it. He was not an Arab intellectual, but an intellectual whose destiny could only be fulfilled by his embrace of America. Like all great American journeys, his started in having to reject parts of his past in order to be open to the life in front of him. In spite of how his mother would have felt about him supporting a rebellion led by Sunnis pointing weapons at Shiites, neither family loyalty, nor historical trauma, never mind identity politics, could obscure for Fouad Ajami the difference between right and wrong: All men are created equal.

Ajami was impatient with American self-pity, our inward turn, our fear that maybe in the end we do more damage in the rest of the world than good. His work and life argue otherwise. They are a monument to possibility, to human freedom, and to America, a question and a reminder, reformulated over the course of this American writer’s career—Why else would I choose you if not to stand with you for these things that matter, for these universal truths?

Lee Smith, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, is author of The Consequences of Syria (Hoover Institution Press).

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