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An Exceptional American: Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014

Lee Smith

Hardly a day passes that I don’t think it’s a good time to go back and reread Fouad Ajami. As events unfold in the Middle East, he always offers some insight or information, or better yet one perfect and memorable sentence or phrase, that points at an answer to the whole puzzle. And now I want to read it all again—the books, the countless essays and newspaper columns, transcripts from interviews and TV appearances—all at once, as if to fill the hole left by his death in late June.

Ajami is best known as a historian of the modern Middle East, but he was primarily a writer who became one of the great stylists of English prose, to be read not simply for instruction but for pleasure, too. He was essentially a memoirist, though the man himself appears rarely in the books. He makes an appearance, briefly, in the introduction to The Vanished Imam, his second book, touching lightly on his adolescence in the Lebanese capital, as a “Shia assimilé, from a background in the rural south, anxious to pass undetected in the modern world of Beirut.”

It’s hard not to conclude that this writer steeped in world literature means to identify himself here as a type of literary figure, like a protagonist in 19th-century novels of education—for instance, Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black, a young man from the provinces who would witness some of the momentous social and political upheavals of his time. In Ajami’s case, this took him from the Levant to the White House.

His first and third books, The Arab Predicament and The Dream Palace of the Arabs, perhaps his greatest single work, chronicle the political and intellectual ambitions and errors of an Arab generation. The Foreigner’s Gift, concerning the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, maps the intersection of his past and his present, and what America embodies for everyone, the Arabs, too. The Syrian Rebellion, his fifth book, documenting the brutal ongoing civil war and Western apathy, is the culmination of what is a quintessentially American autobiography, recording the growth and formation of an American mind, Ajami’s, even as the central figure stays in the margins. His final volume, The Struggle for Mastery in the Fertile Crescent, is a short coda written by a man who, knowing he was dying, chose as his final keywords mercy and light.

Ajami wrote about great events and the greater passions, both the fine and the damaged, moving them. Looking at the arc of the career described in his books, it becomes clear that the modern Middle East was merely the focus of his attention, the frame on which he hung his argument. His real subject was human freedom and possibility, the greatest of American themes.

Like Joseph Conrad and George Santayana, other writers whose mother tongue was not English, Ajami added to the song and therefore wisdom of our written language. He was interested not in color or cadence, but exposition and argument, which is the force undergirding his syllables as they are spoken aloud.

If prose has a shape, Arabic’s, unlike that of English, is too often a spiral, circling in on itself, concluding where it started, driven not by reason but by rhetoric and sometimes rhyme. It was Ajami, the man of letters as well as the historian, who saw that this linguistic style reflected both Arab private ambitions and public life. Generations of Arabs had staked their fates on empty talk, like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s threats, Saddam Hussein’s posturing, and the “divine victories” that Hassan Nasrallah boasted of with his community in ruins after Hezbollah’s disastrous 2006 war with Israel.

“The tragedy of Arab political culture,” Ajami wrote in 2008, “has been the unending expectation of the crowd—the street, we call it—in the redeemer who will put an end to the decline, who will restore faded splendor and greatness.” Ajami was alarmed to hear this same effect reproduced in his adopted land. He heard it in Obama. As he wrote in that same Wall Street Journal column shortly before the 2008 presidential election: “America is a different land, for me exceptional in all the ways that matter. In recent days, those vast Obama crowds, though, have recalled for me the politics of charisma that wrecked Arab and Muslim societies. A leader does not have to say much, or be much. The crowd is left to its most powerful possession—its imagination.”

Ajami was keenly attuned to the dangerous and delusional poetry upon which the Arabs had built their political culture, and it clashed with his idea of America. Political charisma, resentment, identity politics were what you had left if you emptied us of our pragmatism, resilience, and conviction that all men, created equal, seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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.

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?

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