“In fact, Ajami himself wrote a positive review of one of the many books on that era, Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World.”
Thus does that apologist for Islam Eboo Patel (the name swings both ways) wonder aloud why Ajami dared to give the book by Christopher Caldwell a favorable review. In mentioning Ajami’s favorable earlier view of Maria Rosa Menocal’s exercise in ahistorical fantasy (see my piece “The Persistent Myth of Andalusia” here), Eboo Patel does inadvertently point to what, in the end, so diminishes the significance of Ajami’s contribution to the American understanding of the Arab polities and peoples. What fatally vitiates all that Ajami writes is his inability to come to terms with, or to understand for Infidels the full menace of, or for Muslims the mentally and morally stunting effects of, Islam.
Ajami was born into a Shi’a family in Lebanon. His whole charmed career has been helped by the fact that he has been less dishonest about Islam, and certainly a lot more reasonable about it than many others — amazingly so by comparison with his sparring-partner, the late and unlamented Edward Said. But he also is not a systematic thinker, and has an at-times impressionistic prose where over-adjectivized prose leaves us with no explanation as to what human cause prompts these dramatic adjectives (“in this violent and tragic land…,” or adjectives to that effect). His prose also has many lacunae, such as, for example, an understanding of the sources in romantic writers (Scott, Chateaubriand, Washington Irving) and movements for the myth of tolerant Islamic Spain. The deplorable and embarrassing work by Maria Rosa Menocal — which has been dissected in “The Sad State of American Education” here — deserved not his endorsement, but his intelligent criticism. Ajami’s enthusiasm for Al-Sistani was, one hopes, based on his ignorance of Al-Sistani’s website, with its list of “najis” items including blood, semen, excrement, and a few other things — including non-Muslims.
Ajami even now can’t quite come to terms with Islam, can’t allow himself to make an open break with the faith of his fathers. He himself is a non-believer and a thoroughly Western Enlightenment man. He certainly understands, is well-versed in, and sees right through, the deceptions and nonsense and lies of Edward Said once upon a time, and of Tariq Ramadan and his epigones today. But what is it that filled him with unwonted admiration for Al-Sistani? Was it that Al-Sistani was a defender of the stunted and persecuted Shi”a? Was it that Al-Sistani was nothing like the mullahs who set up and ruled and still rule the Islamic Republic of Iran? What? What keeps him from open apostasy? Is it physical fear? Fear of not being able to travel to the Middle East? Filial piety? A Lewisian dislike of admitting he was wrong all along about the baleful baneful influence of Islam on the minds of men? This refusal to see what Islam does to the minds of men makes Ajami less useful in the coming war of self-defense; his enthusiasm for the war in Iraq is the kind held only by those who refuse to recognize the larger menace to the non-Muslim world, and therefore cannot grasp the need for a policy that exploits, rather than seeks to diminish, pre-existing fissures within the Muslim world.
Ajami has his uses. He never had to worry about tenure. He’s had Bradley Foundation fellowships, and grants here and grants there, and prizes heaped upon prizes. He’s not exactly, however, a great scholar either of history or of Islam. His field is current events, and he also has one of those patricia-williams lines in the “the personal narrative” where someone (preferably non-European and non-white) Tells His Own Story (“I spent those years like all young Arabs”¦”). He has received every award, every conceivable fellowship, and has had a charmed career. And he should, and could, have done much more to enlighten first himself, and then others, about Islam. He just can’t bring himself to do it. He’s stuck. And that must be recognized, even as one reads him with a certain grim pleasure — knowing how much he must be holding in, and how it must infuriate him at times (at least, one likes to suppose) that he cannot allow himself the mental freedom that such people as Ibn Warraq or Wafa Sultan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali have decided, having made the break, to allow themselves. He is good, but never quite good enough, and always slightly off, or sometimes more than slightly off, because of the Great Refusal — the Refusal To Discuss Islam.
His review of Christopher Caldwell’s book is the closest he has come, and he still understates, still satisfies himself with the oblique and the half-truth. What does he say, when he is alone with, for example, Azar Nafisi? Does he discuss with her, is he even curious about, his own lineage, far far back, and the name “Ajami” that indicates a connection to Persia? And if so, does he exercise his imaginative muscles to consider what Zoroastrian (or Jewish, or Christian) ancestors were forcibly converted, by the threat of violence or the intolerable burden of dhimmitude, to convert to Islam? What happens when he is with advanced fellow Arabs — possibly members of the Behbehani family in Kuwait — some of whose children know English better than they know Arabic? Do they discuss Islam, and its intellectual and moral failures? Or is this the Big Unstated Subject that must be left untouched, for fear of what someone might, in confidence, reveal, and then find out that the confidence was misplaced? It must be quite something to be a Muslim-for-idenitification-purposes-only Muslim or, as in Ajami’s case, not even that, but just someone who will never ever raise the matter, because”¦what can he openly say?
As a consequence, Ajami’s usefulness is diminished. He is not quite the guide to the Middle East that his many admirers, on what are called “right-wing” foundations, and on the editorial boards of various publications, appear still to believe. His review this past Sunday in The Times of Caldwell’s book was about as good as one can at this point reasonably expect from him — or from The Times. And it obviously left much to be desired. Still, it’s a start. People will now buy, and some will even read, Caldwell’s book. And that’s the kind of thing that sends the eboo-patels of this world into a frenzy, and they will move heaven and earth to try to stop it.
At the end of my Tribute to Fouad Ajami, put up here more than a year ago, I expressed some of the same doubts and dismay as I have reaffirmed here, but I also ended by showing some hope that Ajami would finally come to grips with Islam. Here is how I put it:
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.
Eheu, alas, alack, and welladay, so far the hope I expressed for Ajami in the paragraphs above remains forlorn. He has not yet started to write and speak truthfully about the baneful effects of Islam on its adherents, and even more importantly, to start, as a merely “cultural” Muslim or, more accurately, a “Muslim-for-identification-purposes-only Muslim,” to openly offer support for those policies which would recognize the need to halt the advance of Islam in Western Europe, in North America, and elsewhere, and to relentlessly play upon all pre-existing fissures, in posse and in esse, within the Camp of Islam, not least by removing Infidel troops from that colossal waste and fiasco, from the viewpoint of Realpolitik, of the American effort in Iraq. Ajami, a Shi’ite happy to see the Shi’a of Iraq take control from their Sunni masters, supported that effort early and late. That removal would lead to the increase of ethnic and sectarian fissures, so that non-Arab Muslims may come to recognize, in the attempt by Kurds to throw off the Arab yoke, all the ways in which Islam is a vehicle of Arab supremacism, and so that the hostility of Sunni and Shi’a within Iraq may cause repercussions in Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Pakistan, where the attitudes and actions of co-religionists might be affected.
He is apparently not yet brave enough, or not convinced enough, or not quite morally and intellectually outraged enough, to attain to the heights — to climb the North Face — with such intrepid climbers as Wafa Sultan, and Magdi Allam, and Ibn Warraq, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and thousands of others whose names are not, by design, well known.
Like Bernard Lewis, but even more than Lewis, his work suffers because he will not look steadily and whole at Islam.
But there’s still time. Ajami’s review of Caldwell’s book is a good sign. For he accepted the assignment and fulfilled it, not shying away from it, as Bernard Lewis ultimately did when asked by the TLS some years ago to review Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not A Muslim, or the way Patricia Crone refused to review another book by Ibn Warraq but at least made sure that the substitute reviewer assigned by Robert Irwin was not one of the usual band of apologists who are always on call. And while there are those who will carp because there were still many punches pulled, Ajami did give Caldwell’s monitory description and analysis as glowing a review as one could reasonably have expected from Fouad Ajami.
But, of course, we can always expect more. And we will. We do. God Sees The Truth, But Waits. We mere mortals are a little more impatient.