Al-Sistani, who doesn’t want jihad against the Americans for the “time being,” was, some will recall, “nominated” in print by excitable Tom Friedman, always-ready-to-declare-his-latest-enthusiasm Tom Friedman, grand-simplifier Tom Friedman, as a suitable candidate for a Nobel Prize for Peace. That neither latest, nor greatest, of a long succession of friedmanian ludicrous remarks (not too ludicrous apparently for him to continue to ask for, and receive, $45,000 per public appearance, for a collection of shallow plongitudes and endless platitudes, but so eager-beaverly presented, that some may come away complacently thinking that they have actually “learned something”) was mocked here. Al-Sistani’s listing of “najis” (unclean) things at his website — you know, blood, sputum, sperm, feces, Infidels, dogs, that sort of thing — must have gotten to Friedman somehow, for he promptly put a lid on his exploding enthusiasm for Al-Sistani, and we never heard from him again on the matter.
But Al-Sistani was also deeply impressive to The Man Who Never Mentions Islam, Fouad Ajami. His The Foreigner’s Gift, it has been noted here, should have been called The Infidel’s Gift. But Islam, any hint of discussing how Islam forms the Arab mind, the Arab polity, the Arab everything and anything, is never even hint-glinted at in the pseudo-poetic, and comically annoying prose (described by one amazonian review as “luscious”) in which Ajami presents his works. These works apparently meet with favor, for he has been much-rewarded in this country, possibly for Services Rendered Against Edward Said, with prizes, foundation grants, all the conceivable Recognitions that academic flesh is heir to.
Ajami thought Al-Sistani splendid, noble, just the ticket for the Iraq Light-Unto-the-Muslim Nations Project. John Agresto, on the other hand, who has no stake in looking for splendid examples of dignified and impressive Muslim clerics, reports on what he took to be the appalling antisemitism of Al-Sistani, and for some reason that whole dignified-bearing stuff did not cut nearly, in fact it cut none of the ice it did with the impressionable man of Shi’a background. Ajami is an unbeliever, of course, but one who will not dare, for careerist reasons, to declare that he has jettisoned Islam. He steers carefully away from any comment on Ibn Warraq, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or many others who have bravely made their declaration openly and have none of the filial piety that, it seems, even Arab or, as in Ajami’s case, partly-Arab (“Ajami” = someone from Persia) freethinkers find makes them unable to sever their ties from Islam. Ajami also apparently cannot see through Islam. He clings to a myth, somewhere inside, of Islamic greatness, a great civilization that existed not despite, or around, or within the interstices of, but within and because of, Islam.
I saw at MEMRI recently an interview with the smiling Egyptian actor Ali Fahmi. He surprises his interviewer, with that mischievous and self-regarding smile of Arabs who in public say something that they know will be taken as extremely bold, extremely daring, when he expresses his nostalgia for the old days, the days of Good King Farouk, Melek Faruk. He deplores the coup of Naguib and Nasser that put paid to the ancien regime. He doesn’t explain, however, because he can’t explain to himself, what exactly it was that made the reign of Old King Farouk worth recalling, for he does not recognize that those were the days before Nasser and company forcibly seized the property of, and then pushed out, all those Jews, Italians, Greeks, and other “Levantines.” (Cavafy and Ungaretti were both born in Egypt.) They were the people who made Egypt interesting. Now, as even the Copts have been diminishing and out-migrating, it tends to the monochrome dullness toward which any Muslim country that converts or drives out any significant non-Muslim population formerly in its midst, naturally tends.
Fahmi did not recognize, and is unlikely to have thought through, that before the coup d’etat of the colonels, the legacy of Lord Cromer had not yet been squandered. Part of that legacy was an awareness by intelligent Egyptians that the West was clearly more advanced, and Islam retrograde. This was a belief that the nasserisant colonels, “secular” but Muslim — just as Saddam Husseein was “secular” but Muslim in the attitudes and atmospherics of his regime, and became more so whenever he felt the need — did not share.
Ali Fahmi is an actor. He cannot be expected to have understood completely what, or why, that ancien regime had its many douceurs, all of them related to the absence of, or constraints put upon, Islam.
But what is Fouad Ajami’s excuse not to have begun, at this point, after forty years in this country, in which he has had honors heaped upon him, and has had all the conceivable leisure one would need, to analyze clearly the role of Islam in the political, economic, social, intellectual, and moral failures of the Arab countries? Instead he contents himself with boozy pseudo-poetic remarks, about “this tragic land” or “these tragic people.” He allows adjectives to describe situations of hopelessness or horror, but never sits down to analyze.
That “Dream Palace,” for example, is never connected to history-haunted Islam, the Islam that provides a mythical past of much misunderstood (for it was hardly a product either of Muslims alone, and certainly not of Muslim Arabs alone), and much exaggerated, “greatness.”
He may appear whenever he feels like it in U.S. News & World Report, or The Wall Street Journal. If you want an Arab who will say nice things about the West, and about Israel — and who doesn’t? — Fouad Ajami is your man.
But if you now want and need something more, something that will explain to you why the continued American presence in Iraq is ill-advised, because we can achieve our ends better not by holding Iraq together, or Iraqis from being at each others’ throats, but by exploiting pre-existing fissures so as to divide and demoralize the Camp of Islam and Jihad, then Ajami is no longer your man. For apparently Ajami does not want to divide and demoralize the Camp of Islam and Jihad. Ajami would not welcome an endless Sunni-Shi’a fight. Ajami wants the best for the Muslim world, and so do we. But we, who have no filial piety, and no desire to defend Islam, think that the best thing that can be done for Muslims is to weaken the hold of Islam on their minds.
His last column in U.S. News, for example, managed to be all about Iraq and America in the Middle East, without mentioning Islam.
It’s the Subject That Isn’t There. And Ajami — who must care about the opinions of those whose opinions should be cared about — shows us his drawbacks and limitations. He can recover, but only if he begins to think about, and write about, Islam and the Arabs, and not merely about “the Arab predicament” or the “Dream Palace of the Arabs.” There’s still time for him to be more demanding on himself, and to see things more clearly.
Meanwhile, if Al-Sistani has indeed been quietly promoting Jihad against what Ajami calls “the strangers” but who are best described as “the Infidels,” one hopes that Ajami will publicly withdraw his declared enthusiasm for Al-Sistani.
Ajami seems capable of recognizing mistakes. He has written that at this point his criticism, a decade ago, of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” (the phrase is from Bernard Lewis, and much of the analysis was, unattributed, from Adda Bozeman) now seems wrong. Ajami still doesn’t see that Huntington, however, was wrong in his positing more than a half-dozen different and competing “civilizations.” A more accurate formulation would note that there is Islam, and then there is all that is non-Islam.
But he has yet to write an analysis of what Islam, that Total Belief-System, does to the minds of men, including those men who so fascinate Ajami, “the Arabs.” Like Patricia Williams, and so many others, he’s always been heavy on the personal narrative: memories of Beirut cafes, when all the world and pan-Arabism was young, that sort of thing. He is always once-over-lightly on analysis. “The Arabs” — their predicament, their Dream Palace — cannot be made sense of if Islam is left out.
One wonders if he will manage to redeem all those high hopes, and finally come to truly deserve all those prizes, those rewards, that spectacular rise through the ranks of academe he has already achieved. Nothing can prevent him from continuing to put on his productions of “Hamlet” without the Prince, but posterity will be kinder if he manages to rethink his comfortable stagecraft, and stages his play in a way that makes, for the audience, intellectual and moral sense.