Remembering a truth-teller and great mind on the Middle East.
He came with conceptions, but he made a voyage of discovery. And so he caught truths, deeper and more durable truths about himself and about us all. (The Traveler’s Luck)
So wrote Fouad Ajami, who died one year ago today, about Joseph Conrad, whose talents for capturing the clash between East and West he judged superior to V.S. Naipaul’s. He might have been writing about his own gift for interpreting the Middle East from his adopted American home. The truths he caught were gained (like Conrad’s) through an immigrant’s eyes—eyes trained not just on his adopted country, but on the land of his birth.
Ajami wrote that Naipaul, for all his “extraordinary talent,” lacked access to the “inner precincts of that universe” of Islamic civilization found in the “tiled courtyards and the private chambers that are meant to keep others out and to keep secrets in.” It is Ajami’s willingness to disclose those secrets and to subject them to ruthlessly honest critiques that gives his work a timelessness and importance attained by few writers of any genre. For expressing these truths, he earned the respect and even love of readers and colleagues who form a counterculture within a Middle East studies establishment dominated by intellectual homogeneity enforced by ethnic, religious, and political litmus tests.
On the surface, Ajami qualified as a member of the fraternal order of the professionally aggrieved: a Shiite Arab of Persian ancestry who hailed from Lebanon, he could have ridden a successful career on the same anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Western platitudes that so many lesser lights have used to ascend to positions of influence and renown. But he came to accept Israel’s existence as an historical fact and to better understand Arab history because of it, even as he wrote unflinchingly about those secrets hidden from the foreigner, and for his intellectual honesty became a pariah to scholars Michael Doran calls “faceless drones taking refuge in smug solidarity.” Never was their smugness more viscerally displayed than in the weeks and months following his death.
Perhaps the most intellectually and morally vulgar of these by a professor of Middle East studies was by As’ad AbuKhalil of Cal State Stanislaus. Claiming that Ajami was an “Arab Zionist” who was “never really known among Arabs” as was Bernard Lewis, and that his Middle East studies colleagues “never held him in high esteem,” Ajami “gave a respectable cast to the racist discourse about Arabs and shared ‘inside views’ about their culture.” He had “deep contempt and hatred for his people and the culture in which he was born,” and “left a harmful legacy for Arabs.” Revealing the bitterness of one for whom the falsehoods that bind the strains of ethnic solidarity trump truth and a sense of shame, he wrote:
Ajami is like the one Jewish person who gets invited to anti-Semitic conferences to attest the views about Jews held by anti-Semites.
Richard Falk, far more prominent than AbuKhalil, after recalling their once-warm friendship and his role in bringing Ajami to Princeton in 1973, wondered in the weeks after Ajami’s death whether he failed to detect “character flaws” that emerged later in life, and concluded his remembrance-as-hit-piece on this damning note:
For me Fouad Ajami’s legacy is that of “sleeping with the enemy.” And it is an enemy that is politically, morally, and legally responsible for millions of deaths, displacements, and devastating losses. In a just world such a responsibility would lead to criminal accountability, but such a prospect is for now situated in what Derrida called the “democracy to come,” a polity in which there would be no impunity for crimes against humanity.
Non-academics joined the attack, with the infamous New York Times obituary reflecting acceptable elite opinion when it quoted Ajami’s nemesis Edward Said’s quip that he had “unmistakably racist prescriptions.” Worse, it relied heavily upon Adam Shatz’s vitriolic 2003 profile of Ajami in The Nation, “The Native Informant.” For Shatz in 2003, as for Ajami’s academic detractors, he was “entirely a creature of the American establishment,” a man “almost entirely deserted by his people.”
These calumnies continued in post-mortem attacks by non-academics: Ajami’s “view of the Arab world was narrow, lacking an understanding of its societies and myriad cultures; the flourishing of arts and culture, science and literature in the region had no interest for him”; he “changed his political colors as per convenience”; and he “succeeded because he pandered to the pro-Israel, anti-Arab causes with his conservative criticism that always seemed to blame the Arabs for everything that went wrong in the Middle East, ignoring the fundamental corruption of Middle East politics which was set in place by self-serving Western government policies.”
Such vitriol reveals the moral bankruptcy and intellectual parochialism of contemporary Middle East studies both on campus and beyond, where it infects journalists, policy experts, and opinion makers around the world. If such a milieu is hostile to detractors in general, it is utterly unforgiving to the “native informant” whose ethnicity and religion should, by the iron rules of academic opinion, determine every aspect of his thought and action. For his unblinking depiction of Arab culture and society, his embrace of America, and his acceptance of Israel, Ajami was declared a traitor to his people. In their condemnation of his writings and his virtues, however, his detractors condemn only themselves.
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