Remembering the Great Fouad Ajami

Published September 10, 2014

The Catholic Difference

In a year replete with devastating news, the June 22 death of Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami hit especially hard. For decades, Fouad, a man of genius I was honored to call a friend, was an invaluable mentor in matters involving the Arab world and its often-lethal discontents. It was a cauldron of self-destructive passions, he knew well, this Lebanese Shiite who came to the United States because he found here a model of the civility and tolerance he wished for his people.

Fouad Ajami described the pathologies of the Arab world with singular clarity and literary grace. His was not the carping of the exile who despises what he has left; it was the sharp, penetrating, and ultimately compassionate (because true) critique of one who mourned the catastrophic condition of contemporary Arab civilization, the hijacking of Arab politics by self-serving dictators, virulent anti-Semites, and Islamist fanatics, and the untold lives warped or lost in consequence. That deep, moral passion about the corruptions of Arab culture was never more eloquently expressed than in the column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, a month after 9/11:

A darkness, a long winter, has descended on the Arabs. Nothing grows in the middle between an authoritarian political order and populations given to perennial flings with dictators, abandoned to their most malignant hatreds. Something is amiss in an Arab world that besieges American embassies for visas and at the same time celebrates America’s calamities. Something has gone terribly wrong in a world where young men strap themselves with explosives, only to be hailed as “martyrs” and “avengers.”

Some months ago, I got an email from Fouad, expressing his enthusiasm for what he had seen of Pope Francis and teasing me that, under these circumstances, he might become a Catholic. It was a light-hearted comment with a serious undertone. For years, Fouad had told me of his respect for John Paul II and Benedict XVI; he had also invited me to address his seminar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on the role of the Catholic Church in shaping world politics. That role, Fouad understood, had changed. The power the Church deployed today was not the political power it once wielded; it was now moral power, the power of persuasion and reason, both of which Fouad believed essential to the Arab world’s recovery from the intellectual morass into which it had sunk centuries ago.

Thus while the herd of independent minds was having a field day condemning Benedict XVI for his 2006 Regensburg Lecture, Fouad understood that the Bavarian pope had correctly identified the two critical challenges that contemporary history posed to 21st-century Islam: the challenges of finding, within authoritative Islamic sources, Islamic warrants underwriting religious tolerance and distinguishing religious and political authority in public life.

The answer to political Islamism and jihadism, Fouad knew, was not turning hundreds of millions of Muslims into good secular liberals; that simply wasn’t going to happen, the fantasies of secular foreign policy strategists notwithstanding. But there was an alternative. The Catholic Church had retrieved lost elements of its own tradition, and learned some new things along the way, in coming to terms with religious freedom and political modernity. That’s what Islam would have to do.

Fouad Ajami would have been heartbroken over Mosul being emptied of its Christians by the homicidal maniacs of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Middle East he longed to help bring to birth was a region that would honor its many religious traditions and cherish the cultural gifts each faith offered its neighbors. The incomprehensible carelessness of Americans in washing their hands of Iraq in recent years deeply saddened him. So, I expect, did the tendency of Christian leaders in the Middle East to curry favor with the dictator in power, in the vain hope that their communities would be left alone. That was strategic folly, Fouad knew, because it helped empower the criminals and the haters.

May the great soul of this man of reason and decency rest in peace.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His previous articles can be found here.

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