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The Dream Palace and the Nightmare: Fouad Ajami’s Quest for Truth

In a Western world of carefully constructed comfort-myths, Fouad Ajami was a dangerous man. In life, Ajami was grudgingly respected by many of his critics because he was so much smarter than they were, and they knew it. In death, Ajami will receive no such professional courtesy. Exhibit A is today’s execrable New York Times obituary.

The Times’s remembrance of Ajami, who died yesterday at age 68, can be written off as another repulsive leftist tantrum. But it’s actually a museum-worthy display of the intellectual depths to which the left has sunk in recent years in an effort–ultimately doomed, one hopes–to erase history. Ajami had long put himself on the front lines of those trying to beat back this rebellion against knowledge. Defense of the truth was weakened by his passing, and the Times wasted not a moment to advance its assault.

It is unfortunate that to call out the Times requires quoting the editorial. Ajami had a long and distinguished career, yet the Times begins its obituary by apportioning a healthy share of blame for the Iraq war to him. And it just keeps sinking from there. Here is the first quote we get from elsewhere in the academy of Ajami’s thinking:

Mr. Ajami’s harshest criticism was leveled at Arab autocrats, who by definition lacked popular support. But his use of words like “tribal,” “atavistic” and “clannish” to describe Arab peoples rankled some. So did his belief that Western nations should intervene in the region to correct wrongs. Edward Said, the Palestinian cultural critic who died in 2003, accused him of having “unmistakably racist prescriptions.”

That is not the last time the obituary seeks to paint Ajami as a racist, a slander without a shred of truth to it–and so it is fitting, in a way, that Edward Said should be the vessel for it. Here is the Times on Ajami’s book The Dream Palace of the Arabs:

“The Dream Palace of the Arabs” told of how a generation of Arab intellectuals tried to renew their homelands’ culture through the forces of modernism and secularism. The Christian Science Monitor called it “a cleareyed look at the lost hopes of the Arabs.”

Partly because of that tone, some condemned the book as too negative. The scholar Andrew N. Rubin, writing in The Nation, said it “echoes the kind of anti-Arabism that both Washington and the pro-Israeli lobby have come to embrace.”

A twofer: calling both Ajami and the “Israel lobby” racist. But this is one of the obstacles Ajami faced in being so eloquent: Andrew Rubin may have read Ajami’s book, but he obviously didn’t understand a word of it. Dream Palace was a condemnation of Arab police-state autocrats precisely because it was a celebration of the potential of Arabs and Arab culture.

Here, for example, is Ajami writing of a popular Arab poet lashing out in verse against Israel:

The Qabbani poem became an overnight sensation. Political power was in the hands of kings and dictators, businessmen were coming and going to economic conferences and “summits” in Casablanca, Amman, and Cairo, trumpeting the advent of a new Middle Eastern economy, but this poet had his own kingdom. As he himself so defiantly put it, poetry was “written on the forehead of every Arab from his birth until his death.” The Arab was the “quintessential poetic being.” Poetry had its own dominion; sultat al-ski’r (the dominion of poetry), and was nobler and truer than the authority of “patriarchy and the authorities of marriage, and politics, and the military.” These later dominions were mere “soap bubbles.” Poetry was at the heart of the turath (heritage), and this turath is “our identity, our passport, our blood type; without it we will become bastard-children.”

Ajami could be proud of the Arab mind but uncomfortable with the ends to which it sometimes lent itself, as in the case of Qabbani’s poem. Such nuance was lost on his critics. Ajami thought higher of his people than did the condescending leftwing polemicists who encouraged their war against the Jews in their midst and against the Westerners seeking to open doors for them. In explaining the title of the book, Ajami wrote:

On their own, in the barracks and in the academies, in the principal cities of the Arab world—Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo—Arabs had built their own dream palace—an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity. In these pages I take up what had become of this edifice in the last quarter-century. The book is at once a book about public matters—a history of a people, the debates of its intellectuals, the fate of its dominant ideas—and a personal inquiry into the kind of world my generation of Arabs, men and women born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was bequeathed.

On their own. Though the Iraq war came after Dream Palace’s publication, it does offer something of a window into Ajami’s thinking. Ajami didn’t support the Iraq war because he thought his Shiite brethren needed a different master. He supported it because on their own they were capable of great things. They didn’t need a master, no matter his tone or tongue. They had rights and expectations and deserved more. This is anti-Arab? The claim is nothing more than extravagant idiocy.

The Times piece closes with another quote from the Nation, in which Ajami is accused of winning over his Western champions with his “almost flirtatious manner” and his pretensions to be “the good Arab.” The Times may not have written that deeply unintelligent nonsense, but reproducing it in its obituary is insulting; using it as the closing quote is spitting on the man’s grave.

The irony is that Ajami’s critics so easily appropriated the language of the authoritarian monsters Ajami wanted consigned to the dustbin, and they did so while Ajami was working tirelessly for the Arabs’ right to be free of such authoritarianism. Now they dismiss him as a traitor to his own people because he wanted them to be free. In life, Ajami was dangerous to them and their artificial world. In death, they fear him still.

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