Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Joseph Massad on Fouad Ajami: from an earlier book review

"Still, Ajami is not secure in his staunchly American identity. After co-authoring a report that recommended the use of English instead of Arabic in "some courses" at the University of Kuwait, Ajami recounts how he and the report became the object of "controversy." The "real issue was my invitation to the university, the very fact that I had been permitted entry into Kuwait." Ajami is appalled that a "writer by the name of Baghdadi" attacked him. "For him, I was a servant of American imperial interests...I was a friend of Israel and the Israelis, and, most damning of all, I was a Shu'ubi." Ajami deflects attention from the first two criticisms by engaging only the third. Whereas Ajami is correct in attacking Baghdadi for labeling him a "Shu'ubi," he understands perfectly well that when he is attacked by Arab intellectuals, this is based on his pro-imperialist and pro-Israeli views which always accompany his virulent hostility to the Arabs. His orientalist views of Arab and Muslim countries are everywhere in evidence. The Arab and Muslim worlds, we are told are "stagnant" and do not change. After quoting Adonis, Ajami proceeds to assert that Arab political "language ó and the banners ó could change... the dilemmas of the society ó its backwardness, its inability to see and define its malady ó would persist ...The culture would have made another detour. It would have headed right back to its stagnant past." His orientalist generalisations are passed off as pearls of wisdom: Iran is "a society known for both its long periods of submission to despotism and its recurrent rebellions... Temperamentally, Iran has been a land susceptible to the power of ideas, to political and philosophical abstraction, to the pamphleteer...The culture of the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf states has in contrast always been thoroughly empirical and raw." These grandiose conclusions are not given to the reader after a thorough examination of Iran's and the Arab Gulf states' histories, societies and politics, rather as logical assertions and truth claims. In much of the book, Ajami sets himself the task of chastising the US for its well-intentioned interest in the Arab World. The US, according to Ajami, is a sort of Jesus Christ, "a foreign saviour" of the wayward Arabs. The US is said by Ajami to endanger itself and its soldiers and citizens to provide valuable services for the Arabs only to receive in return resentment and contempt from these ingrates. The actions of the US and its citizen-lieutenants representing it in the Arab World, he insists, are cases of "innocence" and philanthropic altruism. Of the American withdrawal from Lebanon after their 1982-1984 intervention, Ajami speaks with much sadness. He tells us that the "young men of Ayatollah Khomeini's crusade and a new breed of wholesalers of terror...proceeded to demolish the American presence in Beirut." America, Ajami proceeds, had come to Beirut after a "hasty" decision in September 1982. "This was an open-ended, ambiguous errand to a place America did not fully know or understand. America had indulged great hopes that an American era had begun in Lebanon, but the Americans would not stay the course in Lebanon: there was no taste in America for tribal wars in places with tangled histories." American commitment to save Lebanon was so great, Ajami tells us, that despite the murder of American citizens and later the bombing of the American marine barracks, "American officials talked bravely of not walking away from Lebanon." When the Americans had to leave, "Beirut was lost to the new reign of cruelty." The well-intentioned US intervention in Beirut had ended in "heartbreak" and "carnage." Ajami tells us of the 240 (the real number is actually 241) American marines who died in the suicide attack on their headquarters in Beirut in October 1983. Nowhere in his story of the pristine and loving Americans, does Ajami tell us of the US Sixth-fleet's marines' savage bombing of the Lebanese mountain town Suq al-Gharb near Beirut with more than 600 shells a day. Those who attacked the US marines are not portrayed by Ajami as responding to this US imperialist aggression, rather as "bloodletting" psychopaths intent on killing Americans because they are simply Americans. Despite such ingratitude, America, the saviour of some Arabs from what Ajami calls "local predators" came again to the succour of Kuwait in 1990. This was not the first such visit that the Americans had paid to the Gulf. Americans, Ajami tells us in a romantic rendition, "came to Arabia in the 1930's and 1940's, but they arrived after the age of empire had passed. And they came to Dhahran, on the Persian Gulf, to soften the life of the desert and take it beyond its history of desolation and scarcity... They were careful not to offend the cultural sensibilities of their hosts and to conform to the decorum and style of the place." The monumental American pillage of the Arabian peninsula's wealth since the 1930's constitutes for Ajami a "softening" of the life of the Gulf's Arab inhabitants. For daring to give a different account of the American presence in the Gulf, Abdel-Rahman Munif is accused by Ajami of being nothing short of an orientalist whose fiction is "drawn from the Arabian Nights."
by Joseph Massad
November 6, 1998