Posts Tagged Fouad Ajami

“I was too young myself then…”

Fouad Ajami wrote this confidential letter in support of my university promotion in February 1996. (It’s addressed to the chairperson of the promotion committee.) Ajami faxed me a copy on May 7, 1996. The year is now 2019, Ajami passed away in 2014, and I’m retired from Tel Aviv University, so I presume it’s no great breach of confidentiality to place it here.

As usual with Ajami, it’s over the top in its praise. As he once wrote me, in connection with another letter, he had an ample store of “poetry and understatement” for such chores. I’m sure his other letters of recommendation also shined. Still, it’s something I treasure as a memento of our friendship. So rather than let the fax fade away in a forgotten drawer, I’ve stored it here, where I can more readily retrieve it. I assume the original is in the University archives.

Professor Michael Winter
Faculty of the Humanities
Tel Aviv University
P.O. Box 39040
Ramat Aviv, 69978
Tel Aviv, Israel

February 8, 1996

Re: Evaluation of Dr. Martin Kramer for the rank of Principal Research Associate

Dear Professor Winter:

Let me, at the outset state a special bond I have with Martin Kramer and a very easy conclusion. Martin Kramer was in the first class I taught at Princeton in the academic. year, 1974-1975. I take great pride in his work, and consider him perhaps the single best scholar of his peers and generation in the field. I wish I had something to do with his excellence: alas I don’t. I was too young myself then, not particularly ready for a student who knew more than was comfortable for me at the time.

In the intervening years, I have come to view his work with the greatest admiration. Few scholars anywhere handle primary research material with as much skill. Precious few have his literacy, his deep knowledge of history, his daring. More surprising still is the grace and beauty of his writing. Can there be a better tribute to the work of this exceptional scholar than the fact that Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut considers this young Israeli scholar in Tel Aviv by the name of Martin Kramer, his principal interpreter and biographer? It takes special genius to do the kind of work Kramer does, and he has that genius in abundance. Scholarship is Martin Kramer’s life and his calling. He would have made—forgive the license—a great religious scholar in the cloistered world of the religious seminars in Qom or Najaf. The work he builds often resembles fortresses built with the best of care. His essays on Arab Nationalism are grounded in the best research. At an early age, he has put together a scholarly trail that does honor to him and to Tel Aviv University.
It would be the easiest, the surest thing for me to vote for him an appointment at the rank of Full Professor anywhere. He is to my mind unique among his peers in the quality of his research, in the care with which he works. When Kramer ventures into policy analysis he is exceptional. When he steps into the scholarly tradition, he is equally incomparable.

You and your committee have given me an easy assignment, and one I treasure. If I sound like an avid promoter of Kramer, I can assure you that this is no sign of an eagerness to please. Such is what I and how I think of Martin Kramer. He has my strongest possible endorsement. I admire his tenacity of purpose, his commitment to duty, his sense of the scholarly tradition to which he belongs and which he honors. We don’t train the likes of him often: a superb, exceptional scholar, an exemplary product and practitioner of our craft.


Fouad Ajami
The Majid Khadduri Professor and
Director of Middle East Studies

If Fouad Ajami had eulogized Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami: two allies, now gone. In November, I appeared on a panel devoted to “The Enduring Legacy of Bernard Lewis” at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). There I speculated on how Ajami might have eulogized Lewis, had he not predeceased him by four years. There’s plenty to go on: Ajami said much about Lewis, as a mentor, scholar, and friend. Why choose this topic for ASMEA? Lewis and Ajami co-founded the association: Lewis served as chair, Ajami as vice-chair.

For my address (18 minutes), click here or on the clip below. For the full panel, with additional contributions by fellow historians Jacob Lassner and Norman Stillman, go here.

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Fouad Ajami’s discovery of Israel

This article first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on January 8, 2015, under the title “Fouad Ajami Goes to Israel.”

“In a curious way, my exposure to Israel was essential to my coming to terms with Arab political life and its material.” —Fouad Ajami

The scholar and public intellectual Fouad Ajami, who was born in Lebanon and died last summer in Maine at the age of sixty-eight, specialized in explaining to Westerners the complex and traumatic encounter of the Arab peoples with modernity.  He didn’t write much about Israel per se, or claim any unique insights into its complexities. And yet, at a certain point in his life, he decided he would discover Israel for himself—not only by reading and meeting Israelis abroad, but by visiting the place.

As it happens, I witnessed several of the stages of this discovery, first as his student and later as his friend. Here I want to mark those stages, and then offer some observations on the crucial insight I believe he derived from his quest.

I start with a passage written in 1991:

At night, a searchlight from the Jewish village of Metullah could be seen from the high ridge on which my [own] village lay. The searchlight was a subject of childhood fascination. The searchlight was from the land of the Jews, my grandfather said . . . . In the open, barren country, by the border, that land of the Jews could be seen and the chatter of its people heard across the barbed wire.

Fouad’s native village, Arnoun in southern Lebanon, stands less than five miles from Metullah, the northernmost point in Israel. The story of his discovery of Israel surely begins with this searchlight, beaming and beckoning across an impenetrable border. From childhood, he would later recall, “I retained within me an unrelenting sense of curiosity” about the Jewish state.

But the actual discovery began only much later, after Fouad passed through Beirut and came to America. Exactly 40 years ago, in the fall of 1974, I was a Princeton University senior in Fouad’s class, Politics 320, “Modernization in the Middle East and North Africa.” I was twenty, with two years of study in Israel under my belt; Fouad, recently arrived as an assistant professor of politics, was twenty-nine. Richard Falk, who taught international law at Princeton and would later become notorious as an anti-Israel agitator, played some role in bringing him onto the faculty; he has remembered Fouad as one who “shared a critical outlook on the follies of the American imperial role and felt a deep sympathy for the Palestinian struggles for their place in the sun.” Falk also claims that he introduced Fouad to Edward Said, with whom there was a “rapid bonding.”

Although I place little faith in Richard Falk’s word on anything, I imagine this to be true. Still, I have no personal recollection, from the fall of 1974, of Fouad as a firebrand. In that class there was an Israeli freshman, a twenty-four-year-old artillery captain who had distinguished himself in the October 1973 war and who was the first Israeli officer to go abroad on undergraduate study leave. He later rose to the rank of brigadier general. I can’t be absolutely certain, but he may have been the first Israeli whom Fouad ever encountered.

This young Israeli came right out of central casting—a confident soldier-scholar, not only a sabra but a graduate of Phillips Exeter, the elite New Hampshire boarding school. My vague recollection is that Fouad was fascinated by him, and the class often turned into a back-and-forth between the two of them. When this Israeli was profiled in Princeton’s alumni weekly, he said of Fouad that “we get along well. Relationships at Princeton are very intellectual.” That same semester, incidentally, some of my Jewish classmates decided to invite Fouad to dinner at the kosher dining facility on campus. I’m sure it was his earliest kosher culinary experience—the first (and quite possibly the worst) of many to come.

After my graduation and a year in New York, I returned to Princeton as a graduate student in 1976. Fouad was still there. He had become a star lecturer, with a huge course in international politics enrolling more than 300 students. In those years, he still wore his Palestinian sympathies on his sleeve. Many will have seen a Youtube clip from 1978 of an exchange between one Ben Nitay, a twenty-nine-year-old economic consultant known today as Benjamin Netanyahu, and a thirty-three-year-old Fouad in a jet-black beard. In this encounter, which took place a scant two years after the IDF’s dramatic rescue of Jewish hostages held by Palestinian  terrorists at Entebbe (an operation in which Jonathan Netanyahu lost his life), Fouad is very much the angry Arab, peppering an unflappable Bibi with aggressive questions about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

In the archives of the Daily Princetonian, I find an April 1979 report under this headline: “Politics Professor Informs Precept of PLO Invitation to Visit Lebanon.” According to a student cited in the report, Ajami “told us that Yasir Arafat had invited him and six students to come visit him.” According to another student, Ajami “said jokingly the reason he had received the invitation was because he had spoken out for the PLO in the past, and they hoped he would do so again.”

That Fouad might have thought to visit Beirut, where he himself grew to manhood, on an invitation from the PLO, speaks of another time and a different Fouad. It’s usually said that he broke with the Palestinians over the PLO’s abuse of the Shiites of his native Lebanon, especially in the lead-up to Israel’s 1982 invasion. But the shift was probably expedited by his move from Princeton to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and his engagement with the New Republic, especially its owner Martin Peretz and its literary editor Leon Wieseltier, and subsequently with Mortimer Zuckerman, publisher of the Atlantic and U.S. News & World Report.

Among American Jews, Fouad found the kind of free-wheeling, serious intellectual camaraderie that the Arab-American community, then and now, simply couldn’t sustain. Israel would not have been the cause of his being drawn into this world, but there he would have been challenged to test his second-hand notions of Israel against the reality.

And so he did test them. Fouad paid his first visit in 1980, crossing from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge. “It would have been too brave, too forthright to fly into Israel,” he later wrote. “I covered up my first passage by pretending that I had come to the West Bank. . . . Venturing there (even with an American passport) still had the feel of something illicit about it.”

From then on, he began to pay fairly regular visits, and to fly directly. Because I’d been his student, and we could pick each other out in a crowd, I volunteered for the pleasant task of meeting him when he landed at Ben-Gurion airport. Although an American citizen, he had been born in an enemy country, and his Israeli friends wanted to spare him any indignity or delay at the airport. So I would greet him before he entered passport control. Then we would take a seat while border officials scrutinized his papers. Once he’d been cleared, we would claim his bags, and I’d drive him to his hotel. By the end of this ritual, we’d have caught each other up on our news, and I would know what he was hoping to do on this trip.

Here is Fouad’s 1991 description of these visits:

I knew a good many of the country’s academics and journalists. I had met them in America, and they were eager to tutor me about their country. Gradually the country opened to me. I didn’t know Hebrew; there was only so much of Israeli life that was accessible to me. But the culture of its universities, the intensity of its intellectual debates would soon strip me of the nervousness with which I had initially approached the place. The Palestinian story was not mine. I could thus see Israel on its own terms. I was free to take in the world that the Zionist project had brought forth. Above all, I think I had wanted to understand and interpret Arab society without the great alibi that Israel had become for every Arab failing under the sun. In a curious way, my exposure to Israel was essential to my coming to terms with Arab political life and its material.

The visits were personal, and Fouad usually came alone. He didn’t participate in conferences, deliver lectures, or grant interviews. He did want to meet public figures; my colleague Itamar Rabinovich arranged most of those meetings. I have a clear memory of a Sabbath lunch hosted by Itamar at his apartment so that Fouad could meet Yitzhak Rabin, then out of government; I’m sure Itamar made many more such introductions. On another occasion, in the mid-1990s, I went through a former student to set up a meeting for Fouad with Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister.

I never heard Fouad boast of these meetings, and of course we would never spread word of them. He wasn’t collecting trophies. He wanted to learn what made the country’s leaders tick. But he valued no less highly his meetings with intellectuals. He felt an especially deep affinity with the political analyst Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and vocal advocate of binationalism, whose almost tragic complexity fascinated him.

On weekends, he was sometimes free. I remember Fouad coming to my home for a Sabbath lunch, and a walk we took to a nearby moshav, a kind of collective farm. He loved the rustic houses, the idling tractors, the scent of freshly turned earth, the dogs lazing in the road—all reminded him powerfully of his native village, and he shared some stories of a distant childhood. On the way back we entered a military cemetery, and I read him some of the tombstones, explaining how each war came to have its official name. He was thoughtfully silent.

Back in America, Fouad generally steered clear of appearances before the bevy of organizations that support Israel. He had made an exception in 1992, when he allowed friends to “draft” him (his word) to speak at a New York fundraiser for the Jerusalem Foundation, alongside Dan Rather and Henry Kissinger. The Arabic press was all over him, and friends learned not to ask this sort of favor again. But two years ago, when the American Friends of Tel Aviv University put on a gala dinner in New York to honor his and my mentor Bernard Lewis, Fouad did speak, with humor and emotion. For Bernard, Fouad would do anything—another large story. But he also nodded toward Tel Aviv University, and his statement of friendship is very much worth having in these days of academic-boycott resolutions by bigoted people whose knowledge of Israel and Israeli universities is as nothing compared with his.

Fouad also welcomed publication of his books in Hebrew. Four appeared, in a curious order. First was The Vanished Imam, on the political awakening of Lebanon’s Shiites, rushed to translation in 1988 when Israel was facing a Shiite insurgency in Lebanon’s south. Then came The Dream Palace of the Arabs; only after that, its predecessor The Arab Predicament, a full two decades after its original publication; and finally, in 2012, The Syrian Rebellion.

What did Fouad take away from his forays of discovery? Much of what’s said on this subject misses the point—a failure exemplified by the absurd claim, made in an old hit piece in the Nation, that he “became an ardent Zionist” and even underwent a “Likudnik conversion.” Far from it.  Fouad was one of those—and I would include among them the late, great Jewish scholar Elie Kedourie—who began as naysayers but reconciled themselves to Israel because it had become, in Kedourie’s words, a “going concern.” Or, as Fouad put it, “the state that had fought its way into the world in 1948 is there to stay.” Fouad wasn’t an “ardent Zionist”—and believe me, I know us when I see us. He was a hard-bitten realist who believed that the dreamy denial of Israel’s permanence was crippling the Arabs.

Fouad accused Arab elites, and especially Arab intellectuals, of failing in their most critical responsibility: to grasp the power of Zionism and later Israel, and so pursue an urgent accommodation with the new reality. Instead they had done the opposite, feeding Palestinian refugees and Arab publics with the cruel illusion that history could be undone.

Again and again, Fouad would return to the phrases “history’s verdict” and “harsh truths.” “It would have been the humane thing,” he wrote, “to tell the [Palestinian] refugees that huge historical verdicts are never overturned. But it was safer to offer a steady diet of evasion and escapism.” And this: “Ever since the Palestinians had taken to the road after 1948, that population had never been given the gift of political truth. Zionism had built a whole, new world west of the Jordan River, but Palestinian nationalism had insisted that all this could be undone.” And this: “Arafat refrained from telling the Palestinians the harsh truths they needed to hear about the urgency of practicality and compromise. . . . He peddled the dream that history’s verdict could be overturned, that the ‘right of return’ was theirs.” In short, Arab rejection of Israel had been predicated either on willful ignorance or a lie.

Fouad taught himself more about Israel than any Arab intellectual of his generation. He knew its flaws and faults, but he also understood its virtues and strengths. “On a barren, small piece of land,” he wrote,

the Zionists built a durable state. It was military but not militaristic. It took in waves of refugees and refashioned them into citizens. It had room for faith but remained a secular enterprise. Under conditions of a long siege, it maintained a deep and abiding democratic ethos. The Arabs could have learned from this experiment, but they drew back in horror.

“The Arabs could have learned from this experiment”— in that sentence, Fouad suggested the ultimate purpose of his quest. It wasn’t to ingratiate himself with the American Jewish establishment, as his critics charged. It was to break down the wall the Arabs thought they had erected around Israel, but in truth had erected around themselves.

By a circuitous route, Fouad traced that beam of light he first glimpsed shining across the night sky from the far northern edge of Israel back to its very source. Yes, he told truths about the Arabs to America. But perhaps his greater legacy will prove to be the truths he told about Israel to the Arabs.

A somewhat different version of this essay was delivered as an address at a memorial to Fouad Ajami at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on November 12, 2014. 

Photo: Ajami (left) and Israeli academic and diplomat Itamar Rabinovich at a New York event in honor of Bernard Lewis, sponsored by the American Friends of Tel Aviv University, September 12, 2012. Fouad Ajami and Itamar Rabinovich


Rude Arab Awakening

Martin Kramer, “Rude Arab Awakening,” The National Interest, Summer 1998, pp. 93-96. The article is a review of Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, published by Pantheon Books.

IN 1936, COLUMBIA University offered George Antonius a visiting appointment. Antonius, then putting the finishing touches on his soon-to-be-famous book, The Arab Awakening, had crossed the United States the previous spring, lecturing at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, and Stanford. In Washington, he had an audience with President Roosevelt. His listeners were captivated: he was articulate, charming, persuasive on behalf of Arab independence and Arab Palestine. Had Antonius established himself the following year atop Morningside Heights, he might have had a profound influence upon the way America came to perceive the Middle East. But he allowed Columbia’s offer to languish. America was too far away, too insignificant in the equation of power in the Middle East to attract the ambitious author.

Early in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Fouad Ajami — who lives on Morningside Heights — writes of sifting through Antonius’ papers and visiting his grave in Jerusalem. Here Ajami sets the tone that pervades his new book. Antonius erred. The cause he championed — Arab nationalism, sometimes centered upon the claim to Palestine — later betrayed its children, spawning oppression and poverty, scattering the best Arab minds to the refuge of the West. But Antonius is not judged, for to believe is to be vulnerable. Arab intellectuals believed in the cause, sanctified it, embellished it, even as it robbed them of their freedoms, exiled them, imprisoned them. Only over the last decade or so have the daydreams of nationalism been disrupted. It is a rude awakening, a violent shaking. It has found a masterly narrator in Fouad Ajami.

It was Ajami’s earlier book, The Arab Predicament (1981), that finally broke the spell of The Arab Awakening. In it, Ajami probed the discontent that spread with the failure of the nationalist project following Arab independence and the debacle of 1967. It was a harsh indictment of the post-colonial Arab condition — a condition that has continued to deteriorate, necessitating another regression report. This new book draws its title from the claim by T.E. Lawrence that he had acted in Arabia to give the Arabs “the foundations on which to build an inspired dream palace of their national thoughts.” If the dream has become a nightmare, and the palace a prison, who must accept responsibility? For Ajami, this has never even been a question: It was not the Lawrences, the well-intentioned or malicious foreigners, but the Arabs themselves who put bars upon the windows of their “dream palace,” and posted executioners in the gardens.

Before the message, a word on the medium — and since many passages in this book are written in the first person, they invite a closer scrutiny of the author’s own remarkable position in America. Fouad Ajami’s authority arises not only from his combination of intelligence, knowledge, and style. It is also evidence of a continuing crisis of self-confidence in the American understanding of the Middle East.

To interpret the Arabs, America long preferred to rely upon its own wandering native sons — missionaries like Daniel Bliss, who founded what became the American University of Beirut, or AUB; artists like Frederick Bridgman and Edwin Lord Weeks; and lovers of the desert outback, like the anthropologist Carleton S. Coon. It was a patchy tradition, stitched together with borrowings from the more substantial British store of knowledge. Still, a distinct American school of Arabism did exist, arguably reaching its summit in the political scientist Malcolm Kerr. Born in Beirut to American educators at AUB, schooled at Princeton, tenured at UCLA, Kerr had all of the tools. Americans like him would interpret the Middle East not only for themselves, but for the world — Arabs included.

Yet almost overnight, this American expertise on the Arab world went bankrupt, betrayed by the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Lebanon was that part of the Arab world the Americans knew best, and they were confident — they knew — it would achieve an American-like equilibrium among competing interests. Later, Elizabeth and Robert Fernea, two American academic “old hands,” wrote of how “social science of the 1950s was possessed by a quest for social order; even conflict was seen as producing in-group solidarity, never as the basis for further and greater disorder.” From this perspective, “class differences and kinship networks were seen to be in complementary distribution in Lebanon. The lines of possible conflict were balanced by ties of common interest. Peaceful coexistence between class and ethnic groups seemed assured.”

When Lebanon shattered, expert assurances lost all worth. In accepting the presidency of AUB in 1982, Kerr himself went back into the flames to save something of the tradition. But it was too late. Kerr once admitted (in a passage quoted by Ajami) that “Our small cast of heroes and villains was being crowded out by a new mass of faceless participants, too numerous and too amorphous to be either controlled or held accountable.” It was from the amorphous and faceless mass that Kerr’s own assassins stepped forward to kill him on AUB’s campus in 1984. As Lebanon imploded, confidence in American understanding of the Arabs sank — above all, among Americans themselves. It has yet to recover.

The failure made space for two Arab-American interpreters: Edward Said and Fouad Ajami. Each opened windows on Arab realities that American expertise had underestimated — Said, the “dispossessed” Palestinian, reminding America of festering grievances against Israel and its backers; Ajami, the “displaced” Lebanese Shi’a, reminding America of how brutally unforgiving the Arabs could be of one another. It does not matter that Said himself is not “dispossessed,” or that Ajami is not “displaced.” Each personifies a different vantage point — in many respects, opposite points — on the choices made by the Arabs, and the degree of responsibility they bear for their condition. Over the last twenty years, Said and Ajami have divided American opinion between them. Other voices are heard, but none count as much, for Said and Ajami come from within, and claim to speak knowingly about what can be known only from within.

Who has got it right? If you are a denizen of academe, you most probably will have preferred Said. He will have reached you through his easy mastery of the postmodernist, deconstructionist theories that first became fashionable in his field of literary criticism, and which have since infiltrated every discipline. He will have played successfully upon your own nagging doubts about whether American power is a benevolent thing in the world. And he will have drawn upon your almost automatic sympathy for those who claim themselves its victims, and whose lingering defiance reassures you that, somewhere, the struggle goes on.

But if you are a downtown consumer of the news from Arab lands, you most probably will have preferred Ajami. His approachable prose will have made complex issues comprehensible. His presentation of the Arabs as people who have made choices of their own will have appealed to your sense that people decide whether they know peace or war, wax rich or grow poor — that, as Hegel put it, nobody is coerced who does not will his own coercion. And he will have given you some inkling as to why the Arabs, for all their talk of their undying commitment to unity and freedom, remain divided and oppressed, and fill your television screen with “presidential palaces” and slit throats.

IN MANY RESPECTS, the message of Ajami’s new book is a reiteration. The Arabs have defeated themselves by a blind adherence to anachronistic ideologies of self-glorification, both nationalist and Islamist. They are now adrift. “A deep political crisis had set in by the early 1980s,” writes Ajami, “and what remained. . . was a new world of cruelty, waste, and confusion.” This crisis culminated in the “hatching” of Saddam Hussein, the most hideous of the mutations of Arab nationalism.

The intellectuals were supposed to guard the ideal against its corruption. After all, Arab nationalism had been their project, and even today, when raw power is wielded by men like Saddam, a political poem by Nizar Qabbani — who died on April 30 at age 75 — can fire Arab imaginations. But the record of the Arab intellectuals over the past two decades has been mixed at best. Some bowed down before the tyrants, others ridiculed the drift towards pragmatism — “normal traffic” with America or peace with Israel. Again, Ajami is careful to withhold final judgment: he quotes their poems and tells their stories with a judicious restraint. But there is a subtle suggestion that the poets, novelists, and playwrights, in their fervor, have done the Arabs an unforgivable disservice. This is not the Arabic khiyana, the treasonous trafficking with the enemy; but it is the trahison des clercs, the self-betrayal of the intellectuals, for which others must pay the price.

For the Arab reader, there is much in this book to give pause — but so, too, for the American reader less riveted by pirouettes of Arab poets. Ajami, as it happens, does believe that American power can be used to benevolent purposes, and that an opportunity to do so was missed in the last days of the Gulf War — a “heartless ending for a moral crusade,” a “moral abdication.” James Baker, the “spinmaster,” is described as a man “oddly disengaged” from the consequences of his own decisions over Iraq. The United States, having urged the Shi’a and Kurds to rebellion, abandoned them to a grim fate; the American victory has remained tarnished and incomplete.

There is also a warning here over Egypt. The regime is steady, but the country is losing its race with modernity. Its “pride is more than its accomplishments”: Egypt is scarred by unrelenting poverty, a bleak political landscape, sectarian strife between Muslim and Copt, and a precipitous decline in the country’s cultural life. Over the last two decades, Egypt has received $40 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance, yet there is “a curious free-floating hostility to American ideals and interests, a conviction that the United States wishes Egypt permanent dependency and helplessness. . . [and] a belief that the United States is somehow engaged with Israel in an attempt to diminish and hem in Egypt’s power and influence.” What is really happening, believes Ajami, is that Egypt is slowly imploding upon itself — an outcome that could complicate America’s position in the Middle East far more than the implosion of Lebanon over a generation ago.

And then there is the “orphaned peace” with Israel. The peace is opposed violently by Islamists, but its more formidable critics are the very people regarded by American political scientists as the nucleus of “civil society.” True, writes Ajami, “it is hard to know with any precision where opposition to the rulers per se ends and animus toward Israel begins.” But the sum is the same: even the most idealistic Israeli peace, the “exuberant” peace of Shimon Peres, has only a handful of partisans among the Arab intellectuals — most of whom, Ajami reminds us, preferred the aloof Yitzhak Rabin and, now even more, the blunt Benyamin Netanyahu, who they believe validates their caricature of Israel as hating and hateful.

And so now the poets are free to indulge in even greater excess. Here is Qabbani, in one of his last poems (which Ajami does not quote):

I am with terrorism
as long as this new world order
is shared
between America and Israel
I am with terrorism
with all my poetry
with all my words
and all my teeth
as long as this new world
is in the hands of a butcher.

“Let us leave politics to the diplomats and the soldiers,” said Goethe. The (real) palace is probably just where Arab politics belong.

© Martin Kramer

Arabs Against Themselves

Martin Kramer, “Arabs Against Themselves,” Commentary, July 1982, pp. 86-88. The article is a review of Fouad Ajami, The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967, published by Cambridge University Press.

THAT the Arabs share a predicament seems at once implausible. Some grow impoverished, others wax rich. Some are caught up in world politics and markets, others cannot imagine what lies beyond clan or village. A great majority profess Islam, but others have succumbed to rational doubt. They inhabit a score of kingdoms, emirates, and republics, most of which have met and withstood repeated plans for amalgamation. The Arabs are a nation, but a divided nation. Each part grapples with a very private predicament, which it not uncommonly seeks to inflict upon the whole.

Is there more than an aspiration for hegemony and a propensity for internecine strife that binds the Arabs? Unlike the two peoples between whom they are wedged, and with whom they share a common legacy, the Arabs are hesitant. The Turks elected thorough secularization, democracy, and Westernization, and most Arabs looked on in awe and consternation. The Iranians have now chosen radical Islamization, hierocracy, and disavowal of the West, and most Arabs again watch in awe and consternation. They waver between difficult choices, while claiming a rare capacity for reconciling all competing claims in their own way. Some are not quite sure about the strictures of socialism, and so elaborate an enigmatic Arab socialism that recognizes no conflict of class. Some are not really certain about the merits of representative democracy, and so tell themselves and others that they have improved upon it to arrive at a desert or Arab or Islamic democracy, unencumbered by parliamentary institutions. Some fear the dislocations of revolution, and so evolve a doctrine of Arab revolution which manages without a revolutionary social program.

It is Fouad Ajami’s premise that this “hybrid of cultural and technological mimicry with regressive social institutions” is not viable, and that “it is the lot of the Arabs to make their choices in the eye of the storm. Their world has become too pivotal to be left alone.” That world, set “so close to the fire,” is all too liable to come undone tomorrow.

This is by now a familiar format, the compedium of judgments and insights on a thwarted people by a troubled native son. V. S. Naipaul’s work set the guild’s literary standards and defined its themes. Here, too, the argument is essentially Naipaulian: “Neither large wealth nor displays of traditions will arrest the drift toward disorder in vast stretches of the Arab world. Wealth has only underlined a painful gap between what a society can buy and what it can be.” Note that it is disorder, not revolution, which awaits the Arabs. In disorder, one can still equivocate; the Arabs have been more confident of their ability to contain Lebanon’s lingering civil war than Iran’s revolution.

But it is the Lebanese deadlock, the probability that it will widen to embrace other Arabs, which shadows this account. Ajami was born in Arnoun, a village in southern Lebanon four miles from the border with Israel, now set right in the crucible. That accidental credential, and his own talent, have brought him to Johns Hopkins, the New York Times, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations, where he teaches and appears not only as an authority on the Arabs, but as an Arab authority on the Arabs. There is a difference, and given Ajami’s affirmation in his preface that this is a personal document, allowances must be made for his own predicament, for it has affected this statement in a subtle fashion.

AJAMI calls his book a “chronicle of illusions and despair, of politics repeatedly degenerating into bloodletting,” and so he appropriately begins with a murder, that of a prominent if not very principled Lebanese journalist. Salim al-Lawzi, the editor and publisher of an influential Arabic periodical in London, arrived in Beirut in early 1980 to attend his mother’s funeral. There he was abducted, secretly executed, and his body discarded outside the city. In light of his unconcealed opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, suspicion naturally fell upon Syrian agents, and here it is worth supplying a grisly clue which Ajami for some reason omits: the flesh of Lawzi’s right hand had been burned off with acid. “The world can be read into small events,” reflects Ajami on the murder and mutilation, and the opening is a highly personal musing. In Lebanon and Syria, the threat of physical violence is brandished precisely against journalists and writers with whom this book often expresses so close an affinity of ideas. Later we also learn that Iraq, a state “bent upon entering the nuclear age,” “strictly regulates the usage of privately owned typewriters. Only friends of the government are given licenses to acquire them. Typewriters smack of political freedom, of pamphlets and agitation.” Rule or die, Ajami submits, is the credo of the Arabs, and writers flatter rulers or risk retribution. There is no rejoinder to the bullet book review, no middle ground upon which this author and others of outspoken opinion might have stood. When they can, they flee, swelling the ranks of Arabs in exile.

Ajami knows what does not explain his own estrangement or the tragic circumstances in which so many others now find themselves. One reads no indictments here of the triumvirate of colonialism, imperialism, and Zionism. No accusations are leveled against Freemasons, foreign spies, or fifth-columnists. The Arabs themselves, Ajami reasons, are at the root of their own disorder. “The wounds that mattered were self-inflicted wounds. The outside world intruded, but the destruction one saw reflected the logic of Arab history, the quality of its leadership…. No outsiders had to oppress and mutilate. The whip was cracked by one’s own.” These have been the wages of independence.

IN THREE essentially distinct essays, Ajami explores the intellectual and political aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt’s recent vicissitudes, and finally the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. The first chapter remembers the period of introspection and ferment which followed the 1967 defeat, drawing examples from the writings of a radical secularist, a disaffected Arab nationalist, a radical fundamentalist, and two conservative fundamentalists. “There was no place to hide; men had to contemplate where they had been and what it all amounted to.” And the day belonged to brutal iconoclasts who expressed, for the first time, wellargued doubts about Islam, Arabism, and the quality of Arab politics. One of the most accomplished of contemporary Arab poets insisted that “societies that modernized did so only after they rebelled against their history, traditions, and values,” and that the Arabs were simply “not up to the level of the revolution.” A Yale-educated professor of philosophy and scion of a great and old Syrian family lamented that the Arabs “have made room in our lives for the refrigerator, the television set, oil wells, MIG airplanes, the radar . . . but the mentality that uses these imported products remains the same traditional mentality that belongs to bedouin, agrarian supernatural stages that preceded the industrial revolution.” A fallen veteran of the Syrian Ba’th party argued that the struggle for power in his country was one between “primitive tribes,” and that his own faction was “the latest version of backwardness, a tragic expression of it . . .nothing was resurrected with us-in power-but the age of the Mamluks.” Ajami’s own sympathies lie just below the surface of the narrative. While he complains of the “lamentable quality of secular discourse” among the Arabs, the iconoclastic critique, shorn of its excesses and wedded to a certain pragmatism, is his own.

But more war and much more wealth, the yields of October 1973, were read differently by other Arabs. It is a renascent Islam that is the mark of this decade in Arab politics, either in the patient “tradition-mongering” of the Saudis, or in the impatient “hyperauthenticity” associated with opposition and assassination. All this leads the author into unfamiliar quarters. Suspending his distress, Ajami works hard to invest the fundamentalist argument with credibility, and his spokesman for the radical Muslim critique, Muhammad Jalal Kishk, is eloquent in this summary. Kishk is an Egyptian who has written works concerned with the malignant cultural influence of the West and ways to shut it out. “The virtue of Kishk’s analysis,” contends Ajami, “was to demonstrate that traditional thought can be penetrating and unapologetic and can be turned on social and political problems without excessive piety.”

This is in fact the virtue of Ajami’s paraphrase of Kishk, for to get any sense out of it at all, he has had to prune the various fundamentalist arguments of that attention to unseen forces which explains much of their appeal. In a word, contemporary fundamentalism is a theory of conspiracy. The West is pursuing a veiled offensive through every possible agency, from cinema and television to Orientalist scholarship, and Muslims, in turn, must conspire with the unseen power of a merciful God or face extirpation. The true nature of this struggle is apparent only to initiates. Such a rage, wholly shared by Kishk, cannot be made penetrating. It thrives on faith, fear, and nescience.

AJAMI’s method is at fault here. His is a bias toward the articulate, and his sources are publishing intellectuals. Where their thoughts are disjointed, as they often are, he tidies them. Naipaul, in his very different impressions of Muslim fundamentalism (Among the Believers, 1981), relates precisely what he heard from mullahs and the lesser faithful, and produces an account that rings authentic in conveying the panic and bluster of it all. Much of the dialogue is disturbing, and Naipaul does not conceal his alarm. “Instead of trying to understand these people,” complains Ajami elsewhere, “Naipaul is ready to judge them. In his desire to discover their hidden vulnerabilities and point out their contradictions, their need for outside goods and outside approval, he tends to miss the drama and the real meaning of their situation.”

But here it is Ajami who, in pursuit of understanding, transmits only those parts of the fundamentalist argument with which he is at all capable of empathy. He withholds the conspiratorial eschatology, which is beyond his comprehension, and those contradictions that he cannot resolve. Ajami is too anxious to interpret, too ready to infer, and his paraphrase is a disservice.

THE choice of Egypt for a comprehensive inquiry is already a form of homage: “On Egypt’s performance–sometimes a desperate trapeze act–other Arabs have been and remain fixated, applauding at times, full of derision at other times.” Palestinian misadventures and Saudi deals, Iraqi bluff and Libyan mischief, for all their theatricality, are but sideshows. This is the book’s most unsettling piece of analysis, written before Sadat’s assassination and Mubarak’s groping for an Arab reconcilation. “Something about Egypt has always driven its rulers to entertain ambitions that end up breaking the back of their societies,” and Sadat was no different. Ajami found his particular “epic” a “nauseating pretension … awaiting its death, as less sophisticated, less polished people-claiming authenticity, more connected to the earth-push it into its grave,” and maintains that Egypt cannot wholly escape that certain disorder in store for the other Arabs.

Now whether Egypt will crack under the combined weight of a failed economy and religious extremism no one can tell, and Ajami offers no more than a premonition. He does not know the traditional quarters of Cairo or the provinces, upon which so much hinges, as well as he knows the publishing intellectuals, who are uncertain barometers. Yet he has offered a sensitive account of the Arab fascination with Egypt and Egypt’s ambivalence in its relations with other Arabs. Ajami belongs to a young generation of Arabs who kept the radio dial always tuned to Nasser’s incendiary “Voice of the Arabs,” a generation for whom there was no serious cultural or political center other than Cairo. Then they wanted terribly to believe that Sadat’s embrace of the West and abuse of the Arabs went against a deep grain, that they had not been orphaned. Saudi Arabia, which Ajami finds “inarticulate” and “hopelessly corrupt,” could not fill the void. Other Arabs are plainly obsessed with Egypt’s choices, and Ajami is an incisive guide to that obsession, for he has shared it. And it must be said that his premonitions have been partly borne out.

“ALMOST every great upheaval that brings a world close to ruin is immediately preceded by a wave of cultural reassertion, by insistent traditionalism.” That tradition, briefly grown to grotesque proportions, must ultimately collapse: “Then reality will intrude and shatter the illusion. Men cannot indefinitely live on frenzy or be kept in a trance.” Ajami finally betrays a vestige of optimism. From his American ark, he anticipates both the flood and the olive leaf, and resists a Naipaulian finale. With an admission that “theirs is not a self-completed world,” and a greater display of political acumen, the Arabs might still avoid the most harrowing scenario. But while the Arabs yet dread their future, so too must those who rely upon them. Following The Arab Predicament, none should be permitted to claim, as it was said of Iran, that we did not know; only that we did not believe.

© Martin Kramer