A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 23, 2014

Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014: Neocon Yes, But His Shi‘ite Background May Have Been More Relevant

Hoover Institution
Fouad Ajami died yesterday of cancer, at the age of 68.

Ajami's career and work was long controversial, and in recent years, polarizing, in large part due to his enthusiastic support of the Iraq war and his adoption, along with Bernard Lewis, as the neocons' favorite Arabist.

Until his move to the Hoover Institution in 2011, Ajami was also a neighbor of ours at MEI: Director of Middle East Studies and holder of the Majid Khadduri Chair at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), which is directly across the back alley from us. Through the years, we crossed paths a number of times. I recall when Majid Khadduri himself died in 2007, Ajami complained about not being invited to speak at the memorial held by SAIS, where a wide range of Middle East hands spoke (including yours truly, both as a former student of Khadduri's and to acknowledge his many contributions to MEI and MEJ). but the holder of the Khadduri Chair had not been asked to do so. (The choices of eulogists were made by the Khadduri family, I believe, not by SAIS.) He did speak from the floor after the eulogies.

Early in his career, Ajami had been a strong supporter of Palestinian rights (see the ancient video at the end of this post), but from his first book, The Arab Predicament (1981) and through his The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), he presented a critique of the contemporary Arab political landscape that alienated much of the Arab World, and led to his virtual excommunication from Arab intellectual circles. That, in turn, may have accelerated his rightward drift.

Though often denounced in the Arab World as an American and Zionist fellow-traveler, my sense is that only the first accusation has some merit: he supported US engagement in the Arab World.

If anything, the fact that he was an Arab criticizing Arabs may have done more to anathematize him in the Arab World than even Bernard Lewis, who as a British and Jewish scholar who still takes pride in the label Orientalist was at least an obvious target. Fouad was one of their own.

But not entirely. If I had to choose one word to define his ideological leanings it would certainly not be "Zionist," and only latterly "neocon." It is a particular irony that he died at this particular moment in Middle Eastern history, because I think the most important factor in creating his worldview may have been a different word: Shi‘ism.

I have no idea if Fouad was religious, but sectarianism is not always a function of piety: how many IRA or Protestant figures in the Irish Troubles were churchgoers?

He was born in Arnoun in South Lebanon, of a family of Iranian origin who had migrated from Tabriz a century earlier. The word ‘ajami in Arabic can mean "foreigner" in general (the root is linked to deafness, as in "not understanding Arabic"), but its original meaning is "Persian."

In my personal opinion perhaps the best of his many books is today largely forgotten, and undeniably his most "Shi‘ite" book: The Vanished Imam: Musa Al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (1986), about the charismatic Lebanese Shi‘ite leader (also southern Lebanese with Iranian links) who disappeared in Libya in 1978.

At least one part of Ajami's longstanding critique of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism (though those movements had many Arab Christian adherents) is that they were essentially covers for Sunni domination. I suspect much of his enthusiasm for the Iraq War was a desire to see the Sunni domination of the Saddam era fall and the majority Shi‘ite population given power under American tutelage.

These, at least, are my personal readings. His work may have been divisive, but it did challenge one to debate, not just denounce. And, while I disagreed with many of his positions, de mortuis nil nisi bonum: he always seemed to me to be a serious scholar, an elegant writer, a witty raconteur, and a nice guy.

Three years ago, thanks to a tip by Joshua Teitelbaum, I discovered this amazing 1978 debate on Palestinian rights by a very full-bearded Fouad Ajami and a young American-Israeli identified as "Ben Nitay" who, if you don't immediately recognize him with more hair, you'll know the moment he speaks: it's a 28-year-old Binyamin Netanyahu.

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