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Remembering Fouad Ajami, the realist Arab

Ajami was not a dreamer in a region where fantasy and political day dreaming thrives

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

“The Intelligence community and the Arab-Zionists were grieved by the death of the Zionist writer of Arab origin Fouad Ajami...”

That was tweeted by a famous Saudi radical. A similar tweet was posted by another Saudi, usually more moderate but not so when it came to Ajami. Scores of others celebrated his death in other ways; citing his anti-Arab positions, describing him as a despicable scholar, a thorn in the side of Arabs and an Arab hater whose only merit was that he was a self-hating Arab. To them he was the epitome of an Arab intellectual who sold his soul to the devil so that the “white” man may accept him and take him in.

There were a few who celebrated the man and mourned his death. They considered him a scholar of high esteem, not without his mistakes, but who of us is. They too cited his position towards Arabs but they framed it in different terms. For them he was simply stating to Arabs the hard and painful truth in naked, blunt words without any sugar coating. One prominent journalist tweeted that in retrospect he seems to have been have right.

Ajami was not a dreamer in a region where fantasy and political day dreaming thrives

Abdullah Hamidaddin

I think those who hate him actually detest themselves. They could not tolerate looking at themselves in mirror he placed in front of them. They are individuals whose lives were spent for lost causes and do not want anyone to tell them what renders their memories meaningless. Those who hate him so much accuse him of being a defeated soul; but in reality it is them who are defeated to their cores to the point where they reject seeing that defeat and to the point where they hate anyone exposing it. They have made so many defeats that they prefer to go on defeating themselves rather than holding themselves accountable, accepting their reality and moving towards building the region to improve the wellbeing of all its people. They love to hate Ajami because it distracts them from hating themselves.

Ajami’s moral mistake

Ajami’s most famous book is “The Arab Predicament.” The title says much about Ajami as it does about Arabs. He was once upon a time an ardent Nasserite, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. He was a disillusioned Arab who woke up to the harsh reality we live in. He turned against all forms of totalitarian ideologies: Islamists, pan-Arab nationalist, and socialists. And he came to believe that only liberal democracy could save the Arabs from themselves. He wanted things to change, but he hit the hard rock of denial which many Arabs preferred to live by. He then considered war a means to changing Arabs. He supported the American invasion of Iraq because he believed it would bring democracy to the region. And he was wrong: factually and morally.

Many of his critics focus on the factual mistake of thinking that the U.S. can actually succeed in democratizing the region through wars. I agree with them here. His was a triple sided mistake. First: he believed that the U.S. could actually achieve such an end given its super power status in a unipolar world. We all know how wrong this was. Second: he believed the U.S. actually wants to improve the situation of the region. Here he forgot its imperialist stance and its history in destroying the region. Third: he believed Arabs would welcome America and work with her to build a democratic region. Here he oversimplified the social and political dynamics of peoples, nations and states.

His critics also cite his unconditional support for Israel and seemingly lack of care towards the Palestinians. He, they say, distorted history in favor of the Israeli narrative. He, they claim, distorted political analysis in favor of Israel’s interests. And for a generation that grew up believing that the central cause of their lives is Palestine, this was too much to bear. I think his mistakes here were much more benign than in his pro-war stance. Moreover his core message here is correct. He tells Arabs to accept Israel as a reality and to not consider Palestine the central problem of the region.

But I think we should focus more on the misgivings of his belief in wars as a route to democracy. One should never advocate an aggressive war under any condition. The carnage of war is too horrific to justify unless it defensive and unless it is the last defensive resort. And this is where his predicament lay; he so wanted change for the Arabs that he ended up advocating for what destroyed so much of what they already had achieved; and worse he ended up killing his own soul in the process of trying to revive the Arab soul.

All in all Ajami was a realist, who said things as they were, and advocated for real solutions, going too far at times. He was not a dreamer in a region where fantasy and political day dreaming thrives. This is why many Arabs hate him, and those who don’t hate him cannot tolerate listening to him.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.