Fouad Ajami: Honest Commentator on the Middle East

The world of forthright and honest commentary on the societies and politics of the Middle East suffered a sad loss with the death of Fouad Ajami of cancer at the early age of 68. Born of a Shiite family in a small village in southern Lebanon, he came to the United States in 1963 and became a proud American citizen with a passionate attachment to his adopted country.

Ajami was a brilliant analyst of Middle Eastern politics, societies, and personalities, expounding his sometimes controversial views, often with sadness when faced by tragic events in his region of origin, but always with great courage, eloquence, gentle wit, and impeccable scholarship. He was also the most influential Arab-American public intellectual of modern times as adviser to members of the Administration of President George W. Bush, and as continuing supporter of the American war in Iraq that started in 2003. 

Ajami was fundamentally a realist in international politics. His views were based on a combination of secularism, modernity, and the realities of power politics. Ajami understood the primary function of states was to act in what they thought were their best interests. Power always mattered, and liberty needed the protection of great powers. He said he learned these lessons from the Greek historian Thucydides. The Melians, for instance, while they were besieged by the Athenians, assumed that their supposed allies, the Lacedaemonians, would come to their aid, but help did not come.

Ajami, devoted to honest intellectual exchange, was prepared to change his mind on controversial issues in the light of new evidence. An important example, and one still relevant because of the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in recent years, was his continuing deliberation of whether civilizations control states or states control civilizations. Ajami emphasized the importance of the state structure system and the traditional concept of balance of power that this embodies. States resorted to reliance on brotherhood and faith and kin, only when it was in their interest to do so.             

His writing on this issue originated with an essay on the political importance of Islamism entitled “The Summoning” in Foreign Affairs, September-October 1993. In it he challenged the well-known thesis of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington that international politics could best be understood as the clash of civilizations, and that “The next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations.” The world, according to Huntington, is divided into eight civilizations, and these cultural divisions are more fundamental than economics, ideology, or the individual states.

Ajami rebutted Huntington’s thesis by pointing out that Huntingdon had simplified issues to mark out the borders of civilization. He argued that Huntington had minimized the continuing significance of states as dominant actors, that he gave too much emphasis to the “de-Westernization” of societies, and that he regarded Islamic fundamentalism as ascendant. Ajami declared that Huntington had underestimated the tenacity of modernity and secularism. He argued that Islamic fundamentalism was less a sign of resurgence of extreme religious beliefs than a response of Arab states and groups against the influence of the West.

However, fifteen years later, in January 2008, in an article "The Clash", Ajami qualified his position, partly because of the changes in Turkey which had elected an Islamist to the presidency. He now recognized that Huntington’s thesis was more compelling than he had thought. Yet, even while admitting that radical Islamists were knocking at the gates of Europe, he still doubted they were bearers of a civilization.

In light of events in the Middle East during the last decade and the victories of ISIS today, Huntington seems more prescient in his apprehension that the ramparts of the West were not being carefully monitored and defended. In view of the passivity of American and European policy regarding the Islamic upsurge, that fear is well founded. The question is stark: will the West remain true to itself, and will Western culture survive?

Ajami became increasingly concerned and critical about the passivity or misplaced policies of U.S. policies, especially the character and ability of President Obama to deal with complex Middle East issues. He commented, on January 12, 2014 that Obama’s call five years ago in Cairo for a new policy of engagement with the Islamic world had not been implemented. As early as January 2009, Ajami recognized the political and rhetorical skill of Obama and his understanding of the mood of the country. On November 14, 2013 Ajami tried to explain the “Obama phenomena” of popularity by the passions and delusions of crowds, a mysterious and universal phenomenon: the spell of personal charisma and “the magician stands exposed.” He was critical of Obama as a polarizing figure, an imperial president, one who had an exalted view of himself and his mission. In his last article, on June 14, 2014, Ajami blamed Obama for the collapse in Syria and Iraq, and for choosing to “look the other way” rather than be the leader of the Free World.

However, for most of his career Ajami was concerned with the foibles and failures in the Arab world, not with criticisms of American politics. In his first book, The Arab Predicament, Ajami discussed the political and intellectual crisis in the Arab world after the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967, and the choices its leaders would have to make. The book for him was a chronicle of illusions and despair, of politics repeatedly degenerating into bloodletting. He explained the predicament as resulting from the lack of a cohesive political, economic, and social system.

The Arab world had failed in attempts at change including proposals for pan-Arabism that he saw as Sunni domination dressed in secular manner. Some in the Arab world had therefore turned to its religious identity, especially Islamic fundamentalism. He explained the continuing but failed efforts of the Arab world to deal with the conflict between modernization and tradition. He viewed recent Arab history as a chronicle of illusions and despair, of the degeneration of politics.

He was critical of the Arab dictators and their regimes. Saddam Hussein was a “Sunni thug;” Moammar Gadhafi was “deranged,” and his “Islamic socialism” was a farce; Syria’s Hafez al-Assad ruled a decades-long brutal dictatorship. Ajami pointed out the sad truth that Arab attempts at social and economic development had bypassed the free market reforms and economic liberalization that had remade East Asia and Latin America.

In a later work, Dream Palace of the Arabs, which was partly autobiographical, he wrote of the Arab world as one “where triumph rarely comes with mercy or moderation.” A generation of Arab intellectuals tried to build their own dream palace for progressive change in the Arab world, but suffered disappointment, and even worse. Throughout his hundreds of articles, Ajami continued to be forthright about Arab reality and its failings. He viewed the Arab world as “wedded to a world view of victimology,” and with megalomaniac potentates who never tell the truth. Though he was an early proponent of Palestinian rights, he was also friendly towards, and understanding about, the State of Israel which he frequently visited. He made an interesting comparison. Israelis were realistic in understanding what can and cannot be had in the world of nations. Palestinians were romantics who “imagined themselves to be exempt from the historical laws of gravity.”

Ajami, in an article reflecting on Israel’s 60th birthday in May 2008, contrasted the Israeli state and experience with Palestinian failures. Israel had built a durable state; it had room for faith but remained secular; it maintained a deep and abiding democratic ethos. In contrast, the Arabs could have learned from the Israeli experiment but drew back in horror. They did not have the courage to tell the truth to their unsuspecting people about their defeat in war. Ajami called for some honest Palestinian and Arab retrospect on how Arab history has played out since 1948.

Even with his brilliant analysis of the Middle East, his advocacy of specific policies was often controversial. He argued in 2003 that that there was no need for the U.S. to pay excessive deference to the political pieties and self-images of the Middle East. He supported the war in Iraq and a continuing American presence there. He held his minority position on American involvement in Iraq to the end. The United States, he thought, should be prepared to remain in Iraq despite its costs and heartbreak. These consequences are an “integral part of staying on, rightly, in so tangled and difficult a setting.”

Ajami was important as a scholar of the Middle East who understood and was sympathetic to Arab problems and hopes without being anti-Israeli or anti-American. He spoke truth to Arab rulers and intellectuals. If only other Arab would follow his intellectual footsteps.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.