Remembering Fouad Ajami

9 Jul

 

 

 

Christopher Hitchens and Fouad Ajami are probably the two foremost once progressive intellectuals who turned right in their later years, and reaped rich career rewards for doing so. I was an acquaintance of Hitchens, who died in 2011. We participated on a couple of occasions in the same event and he publicly ridiculed me. I was appalled by his contemptuous dismissal of those who disagreed with him or whom he regarded as lesser beings, that is, not less than 99% of humanity. His informed brilliance made him always worth reading or listening to even if his views were dogmatically uncongenial, never more so than in his self-righteous championing of the Iraq War as a humanitarian rescue mission undertaken on behalf of the Iraqi people. When Hitchens died I was impressed by his brave struggle against cancer, but he was never a friend, and his death never tempted me to mourn.

 

Fouad Ajami was at one time a dear friend, a close colleague, and someone whose worldview I once shared. I had been partly responsible for bringing Fouad to Princeton where I was on the faculty, and was deeply impressed by his incisive mind, deep reading of difficult scholarly texts, and ethical/political engagement with the world that seemed to express intellectual independence. In this time of friendship we 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. I introduced Fouad to Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad, believing them to be kindred spirits in a shared commitment to justice in all its manifestations with a focus on the deep processes of decolonization being pursued in the countries of the South. At first my social impulse was affirmed as there occurred a rapid bonding of these three extraordinary intellectuals, but before too long, Fouad’s unexpected welcoming of the 1982 Israeli attack on Lebanon, and then a more intense fight among three as to whether or not to attend a CIA-sponsored conference on the Middle East at Harvard led to an open break, with Fouad not only deciding to attend but to write a letter to Edward and Eqbal declaring that he wished no further contact with either of them.

 

In the process, without any such dramatic break, my friendship with Fouad lapsed without ever ending either formally or psychologically. I continued to read his journalistic and scholarly writing, admiring his stylistic gifts and literary sensibility despite my disappointment with the kind of beltway, Israeli-oriented sophisticated polemics he had cast his lot with in the manner of Naipaul, but worse because overtly political. He was warmly welcomed into the establishment, first by the Council on Foreign Relations, and then later an influential participant in the inner sanctum of neocon retreats, ending his career and life, as a senior scholar attached to the notorious Hoover Institution, where even Donald Rumsfeld found sanctuary after his disastrous tenure as Secretary of Defense.

 

In reacting to his death, commentators were sharply polarized as might be expected. In the Wall Street Journal Bret Stephens called Ajami “..the most honest and honorable and generous of American intellectuals,” [June 23, 2014] and went on to explain why. In contrast, Shakir Husain dismisses Ajami as an opportunistic fraud who will be mostly remembered for his enthusiastic and very public endorsement of the 2003 Iraq War and as a high profile apologist for the worst Israeli excesses, a classic example of Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘good Muslim.’ [Daily Sabah, July 8, 2014] Prior to the war Ajami had promised American on TV and his neocon friends, notably Paul Wolfowitz, that Iraqis would celebrate their liberation from the clutches of Saddam Hussein with flowers and dances, and should expect Iraqi crowds welcoming American troops and tanks in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. Ajami seemed so excited by the shock and awe aggression against Iraq that began the war ‘an amazing performance,’ an initial expression of his unflagging endorsement of the Bush-Cheney criminal foreign policy from which he never retreated. [CBS News, March 22, 2003] Adam Shatz constructed a devastating portrait of Ajami’s rightward swing, portraying him as a lethal combination of ‘native informant’ and ‘a cheerleader for American empire,’ dismissing his claim of ‘intellectual independence as a clever fiction.’ [The Nation, April 10, 2003]

 

Despite all this, Fouad was still in my mind and heart a friend with whom I had shared many intimate times, who had cared for my two sons while traveling abroad, who was both affectionate and stimulating, and who seemed to hold my views as to what it meant to be on ‘the right side of history.’ After his disturbing political ‘awakening’ to the realities of the world, we met one time by chance in the 1990s while walking on the streets of the nation’s capital; we stopped and had a friendly coffee together, almost avoiding politics while reminiscing mainly about common friends and his days at Princeton. I remember he was then worried by some comments critical of his role that Edward Said had apparently made to an Arab audience, Fouad telling me that such criticism amounted to ‘a death sentence’ given the high tide of emotions in the region. I can’t recall my response beyond expressing an opinion that Edward would never knowingly encourage violence toward someone with whose views he disagreed, however deeply. We never met again, although I saw Fouad from time to time on TV, and to my surprise, did not disagree with much of his early CNN commentary in seeming support of the Tahrir Square uprising against the Mubarak regime in late January 2011.

 

Reflecting now, I wonder if I can and should separate in my mind the man from his reactionary views and career choices, which will always remain an anathema for me. I wonder also if I was blinded by Fouad’s wit and brilliance and warmth, and failed to detect character flaws that surfaced politically later in his life. Or are political orientations inherently so subjective that what seemed to me an unforgivable ‘betrayal’ was for Fouad a genuine ‘epiphany,’ a swerve of conscience that just happened to land him in the gilded lap of the winners, that is, on the uppermost platforms of elite pampering? It is a whimsical moment that inhibits mourning such a loss, but not the sadness that always accompanies losing a once cherished and trusted friend. To be sure, thinking along these lines recalls Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I firmly believe that I chose the better road, but it will take decades for history to decide.

 

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.

18 Responses to “Remembering Fouad Ajami”

  1. Gene Schulman July 9, 2014 at 1:13 am #

    Richard,

    This is a lovely eulogy to a one-time friend. Gracious and fair at the same time. Though I didn’t know much about him, as I did about Said and Hitchens, let me assure you, and I think all your friends and readers will attest, you took the “better road.” Please stay on it.

    • Rabbi Ira Youdovin July 9, 2014 at 9:44 am #

      Mr. Schulman praises this post as a “gracious” and “lovely eulogy”. But what’s lovely about a scathing post-mortem condemnation of a former friend’s life and work? Prof. Falk acknowledges that Fouad Ajami was a good thinker and writer, but goes on to say that for the last three decades of his life, he put those talents to work for “an enemy that is politically, morally, and legally responsible for millions of deaths, displacements, and devastating losses,” which in a better world, “would lead to criminal accountability.” In other words, Prof. Falk sees his former friend as a criminal, and summarizes his legacy as “sleeping with the enemy.” That doesn’t sound very gracious to me.

      Prof. Falk is entitled to say anything he wants about Fouad Ajami, although one wonders why at this time and on this blog? (And also why add the swipe at Christopher Hitchens, whose death, Prof. Falk makes a point of telling us, he did not mourn—a gratuitous insult that chills the blood.)

      But then, Prof. Falk gets into the always risky business of questioning motives. He suggests—just short of asserting but the insinuation is obvious— that Prof Ajami’s shift in political orientation was motivated by “character flaws” that… just happened to land him in the gilded lap of the winners, that is, on the uppermost platforms of elite pampering?” When stripped of its florid verbiage, what Prof. Falk is saying is that his “cherished friend” Fouad Ajami SOLD OUT.

      This innuendo is neither gracious nor lovely.

      Rabbi Ira Youdovin

      • Gene Schulman July 10, 2014 at 8:41 am #

        Rabbi Youdovin, your bile belies your title. Since there is no hook to hang your picture of nastiness, I’ll just it let lie on the dusty floor where it belongs.

      • Kata Fisher July 10, 2014 at 9:05 am #

        Dear Gene: Please do not say that to Rabbi – we need one here; his presence alone help us not mess things up.

  2. wingsprd July 9, 2014 at 2:02 am #

    Stay on the right road Richard, You wear your heart on your sleeve, no swerving with you.! Think about writing on Tony Blair, we would be interested in your thoughts.
    Admiringly.

  3. Yacoub nasrallah July 9, 2014 at 6:41 pm #

    His death is a cause of celebration and joy because he did so much harm to the Arabs and Palestine I don’t know where he is from but good riddance ….
    An ignorant bigot that seemed to know what he is talking about while he was a racist against his own people assuming he is an arab

    • Fred Skolnik July 10, 2014 at 8:43 am #

      You’ve just seen a perfect example of the Middle East mind and the roots of the Middle East conflict: death as a cause of celebration and joy, assuming that Yacoub Nasrallah is an Arab.

  4. Mark Selden July 10, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    Richard,

    This so well displays your humanity.

    I met Fouad only once . . . we participated in a seminar, perhaps in Seattle.

    I’d read some of his earlier things and was astonished to see him in action . . . so eloquent, perfectly poised, and with the special imprimatur of being an Iranian.

    mark

    • Richard Falk July 10, 2014 at 11:15 am #

      Thanks, Mark. You are right about Fouad, except he was Lebanese, from a Shi’ite village in the south.
      Hope you are fine. Richard

  5. Paul Wapner July 10, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

    The question of distinguishing one’s personality from their work (political or otherwise) is challenging. For example, many learn from Heidegger despite his affiliation with National Socialism and many find Picasso inspiring despite his sordid private life. In fact, many broken people have contributed wonders (political or otherwise). In your depiction of Ajami, it is the other way around. Can we hold deep friendships with those who see a fundamentally different world, especially when we feel that the worldview normatively sustains injustice? To me, I can appreciate the work of those with wildly different personal lives–and even, perhaps, values. But I must admit that there is always a noticeable distance in intimacy between my few friends who champion, what i take to be, injustice. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels like a sense of distrust–as if, when the chips are down, they would turn on the world rather than help. –perhaps an unfair judgment but…

    • Richard Falk July 10, 2014 at 11:12 pm #

      Thanks, Paul, for this sensitive comment that expresses an elusive issue very well. My own response is similar
      to yours in relation learning from others and friendship with those who support what I believe to be injustice,
      which was the case with Fouad. We avoided one another after his swerve to the right, and in that sense it was
      a remembered friendship never directly challenged, but also without any impulse on either of us to continue. It
      was, perhaps, implicitly acknowledged to be no longer viable. One time shortly before I retired from Princeton I
      was approach by a conservative colleague, knowing of our former friendship, favoring offering Fouad a vacant chair in ME studies. I declined without hesitation.
      So maybe a lapsed friendship should not be confused with friendship! But it is also not the opposite..

  6. Beau Oolayforos September 15, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

    Dear Mr Falk –
    In talking about Robert Frost and History, you are so modest that it almost seems false. Adjami might’ve been a nice guy, but sellouts are a dime a dozen. I could almost smell it, the way Dan Rather so deferentially introduced dude’s commentary on TV. He might indeed be remembered, along with Bibi, the neocons, & the rest; and you will be forgotten, if History is truly, as Gibbon said, “but a register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

  7. Road to Servitude June 29, 2015 at 6:36 pm #

    Very poignant. I do not have any clear-cut position on the topic of Israel except my general principles of non-intervention (I am opposed to external soft-power meddling as much as hard), so I will not comment on Ajami’s stance.

    But when it comes to other topics such as the desolation of Iraq and Syria, I have always found Ajami’s writings deeply troubling.

    Yet, as someone who writes myself, I hope that I will one day be able to look back on any friends or acquaintances in the field of writing with whom I strongly disagree, with the sort of love and empathy and compassion that you do (I hope these words are not inappropriate here).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. A Year After His Death, Fouad Ajami’s Detractors Look Even Worse | GoingKuwaiti.com - June 22, 2015

    […] 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” […]

  4. Lobby » Fouad Ajami’s discovery of Israel - October 14, 2015

    […] 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 […]

  5. Fouad Ajami’s discovery of Israel | Martin Kramer on the Middle East - December 12, 2015

    […] 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.” […]

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