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Fouad Ajami and his legacy

Funny quote: One Zionist publication called late Fouad Ajami the “genuine Arab hero.”  This Ajami may have been the first Arab Zionist to advocate publicly for his Zionismand opened the door for the US people the “right” to express racism and bigotry toward any “Arabic” person without being confronted in his anti-Arabic-Semitism

The news of Ajami’s death triggered a competition among American journalists: they all wanted to express how much they loved him and admired him.

They all spoke about his “grace” and one Zionist publication called him the “genuine Arab hero.The New York Times and Wall Street Journal were quick to publish glowing obituaries.

Fouad Ajami is not the only Arab Zionist (and I am using the word Zionist here as a description and not as an insult, which it is for all of us anti-Zionists who measure the ideology by its devastating impact on the lives of Palestinians and Arabs and by its blatantly racist discourse) but he may have been the first Arab Zionist to advocate publicly for his Zionism.

Ajami’s career is a political career and not an academic one.

Academic careers in the top US universities are specifically and rigidly structured and designed: those who are not graduates of the “elite US universities” don’t even get short-listed for jobs.

Yet, Fouad Ajami went to school at Eastern Oregon College and received his PhD at the University of Washington, Seattle. It is certain that he is the only graduate of the University of Washington who got an offer from Harvard University (he turned it down).

When Martin Peretz and other Zionists at Harvard were lobbying for the university to hire Ajami, he demurred. He set his own conditions: that he did not want to teach undergraduates. They explained to him that all faculty at Harvard teach undergraduates.

When Ajami was being pursued by Harvard back in the 1990s, Mohsin Mahdi (one of the first Arabs to get tenure at Harvard) was outraged. I was in Mahdi’s office at the time, and he was (in his own quiet way) fuming at the very idea. He gave me a clip from The Harvard Crimson in which an “unnamed” professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard was quoted as saying that Ajami’s reputation is political and not academic. Mahdi told me that it was him, but insisted that his identity not be revealed.

It is not that Ajami was despised by Arabs but here is somebody who got anointed by US establishment media as the foremost Arab expert (after Bernard Lewis) while his colleagues in Middle Eastern studies never held him in high esteem.

But Ajami, and this may be surprising to American readers, was never really known among Arabs the way Bernard Lewis was known through his translated works. Ajami was more of an American phenomenon, the product of American Zionism.

Ajami was quite known and deeply despised by Arabs in the US.

In fact, when Ajami started to spew his hate and contempt for Arabs in the US media, many were shocked and expressed disbelief that one of their own would take those positions. (I was one of the shocked listeners)because his generalized rambling didn’t make sense to me)

I remember once at a dinner with Arab students in the DC area, a Kuwaiti student shared his theory about Ajami. He said that it is not possible for an Arab to take such extreme Zionist positions and that Ajami must have a secret plan.

“What plan are you talking about?” I asked him. He said that Ajami is carefully working his way up the American establishment hierarchy and then, he finished the sentence. I asked, “and then what? liberate Palestine?”

There is a reason for why Ajami rose in prominence in the media and foreign policy establishment. His first job was at Princeton where he got to befriend Bernard Lewis.

But even Lewis could not secure him a tenured job at the Department of Politics. His second job was at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (he succeeded Majid Khadduri who lobbied for his former student, Elie Salem of AUB).

Ajami’s first book, The Arab Predicament was a hit, but he never was able to go beyond it. The verbally gifted man spoke and wrote in a flowery language that captivated the attention of American viewers and readers.

His book spoke about poetry and translated Arabic poems and discourse to English language readers. There were very few original insights in the book, as Hanna Batatu always told me, but it was a useful book in Middle East studies classes.

Ajami’s later books were not imitations of, but more like caricatures of the original. The flowery language got old and repetitive, and the policy recommendation became more and more pronounced and provocative.

The Zionists loved Ajami and he became a sought-after media guest and congressional and government expert. This is a man who once told a congressional committee that the “Sunnis are homicidal and the Shia are suicidal.” (It is turning that homocidal and suicidal go hand in hand, by force of repetitive habit?)

I was watching the event on C-Span and I was struck that everyone in the room laughed. If one is to replace the word “Jewish” with “Arab” in all the rhetoric and analysis of Ajami, one would rightly be accused and condemned as an anti-Semitic.

But Ajami’s name and accent served him well. He was “one of them” but testifying to their brutality, “atavism” and “culture of terrorism.”

Ajami was willing to express views that Westerners were, at that time, reluctant to say publicly.

He gave a respectable cast to the racist discourse about Arabs and shared inside views about “their culture.” Ajami was incapable of speaking for a few minutes without reminding viewers that he is a proud American — he would always preface his remarks by, “We Americans.” Ajami is like the one Jewish person who gets invited to anti-Semitic conferences to attest the views about Jews held by anti-Semites.

But the usefulness of Ajami waned after September 11, 2001.

There were many imitators and racism against Arabs and Muslims became quite widely acceptable in polite and impolite companies. There were also many Arab and Arab-American imitators in the US and in Europe.

They wanted to achieve prominence by bashing Arabs. Bassam Tibi played that role in Germany, others played similar roles in Western countries. But the limits on discourse against Arabs were lifted and the ability to capture attention by resorting to extreme positions stopped working because extremism (against Arabs and Muslims) became part of the mainstream (the liberal and conservative mainstream).

The director of the right-wing Hoover Institution described Ajami as “one of the most brilliant Middle East scholars of our times” and all media later copied that title. None of them wondered whether the conservative director had the qualifications to assess the status of Middle East studies and its scholars.

But the criteria are political and ever since the first Gulf war, Ajami became a politician writing advice and instructions to policy-makers. The era of the Bush administration changed Ajami: even his flowery language was gone. He started to speak and write like Republican consultants and vulgar neo-conservative pundits.

Nuance was never Ajami’s forte. Ajami’s cheerleading role in the Bush administration earned him high honors in the Bush White House who bestowed one of the highest honors a president can bestow on a citizen. After all, Ajami predicted that Arabs would greet the American invasion and occupation of Iraq “with joy.”

There is no accountability in punditry. Witness how all those who were wrong about Iraq in 2003 have risen again and are dispensing advice and knowledge about the country in US media.

Ajami was unrepentant: in his last column for the Wall Street Journal, he singled out Obama and Maliki for criticisms. They alone were responsible for the mess in Iraq. America was, of course, blameless.

Ajami left a harmful legacy for Arabs.

He charted a new course in Middle East analysis in the US (and the West in general): people should not be shy about expressing bigotry and hostility to Arabs anymore. The field is wide open.

He also left many questions unanswered with his death. His bitterness toward Arabs and his need (in every statement and every interview) to remind people that he was an American spoke of a psychological condition.

We will never know why somebody would have such deep contempt and hatred for his people and the culture in which he was born. His avowed Zionism was only an expression of that condition.

Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil.




June 2023

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