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(Stan Barouh)
(Stan Barouh)

Obituary

Academic held divisive views on Middle East Add to ...

Fouad Ajami, an academic, author and broadcast commentator on Middle East affairs who helped rally support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 – partly by personally advising top policy makers – died on June 22. He was 68.

The cause was cancer, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where Dr. Ajami was a senior fellow, said in a statement.

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An Arab, Dr. Ajami despaired of autocratic Arab governments finding their own way to democracy, and believed that the United States must confront what he called a “culture of terrorism” after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. He likened the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to Hitler.

Dr. Ajami strove to put Arab history into a larger perspective. He often referred to Muslim rage over losing power to the West in 1683, when a Turkish siege of Vienna failed. He said this memory had led to Arab self-pity and self-delusion as they blamed the rest of the world for their troubles. Terrorism, he said, was one result.

It was a view that had been propounded by Bernard Lewis, the eminent Middle East historian at Princeton and public intellectual, who also urged the United States to invade Iraq and advised President George W. Bush.

Most Americans became familiar with Dr. Ajami’s views on CBS News, CNN and the PBS programs Charlie Rose and NewsHour, where his distinctive beard and polished manner lent force to his authoritative-sounding opinions. He wrote more than 400 articles for magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, as well as a half-dozen books on the Middle East, some of which included his own experiences as a Shiite Muslim in majority Sunni societies.

Condoleezza Rice summoned him to the Bush White House when she was national security adviser, and he advised Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defence. In a speech in 2002, Vice-President Dick Cheney invoked Dr. Ajami as predicting that Iraqis would greet liberation by the U.S. military with joy.

In the years following the Iraqi invasion, Dr. Ajami continued to support the action as stabilizing. But he said this month that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had squandered an opportunity to unify the country after American intervention and had become a dictator. More recently, he favoured more aggressive policies toward Iran and Syria. Dr. Ajami’s harshest criticism was levelled at Arab autocrats, who by definition lacked popular support. But his use of words, including “tribal,” “atavistic” and “clannish,” to describe Arab people 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.”

Others praised him for balance. Daniel Pipes, a scholar who specializes in the Middle East, said in Commentary magazine in 2006 that Dr. Ajami had avoided “the common Arab fixation on the perfidy of Israel.”

Fouad Ajami was born Sept. 19, 1945, at the foot of a castle built by Crusaders in Arnoun, a dusty village in southern Lebanon. His family came from Iran (the name Ajami means “Persian” in Arabic) and were prosperous tobacco farmers. When he was four, the family moved to Beirut.

As a boy, he was taunted by Sunni Muslim children for being Shiite and short, he wrote in The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey (1998), an examination of Arab intellectuals of the past two generations. As a teenager, he was enthusiastic about Arab nationalism, a cause he would later criticize. He also fell in love with American culture, particularly Hollywood movies, and especially westerns. In 1963, a day or two before his 18th birthday, his family moved to the United States.

He attended Eastern Oregon College (now University), then earned a PhD at the University of Washington after writing a thesis on international relations and world government. He next taught political science at Princeton. In 1980, the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University named him director of Middle East studies. He joined the Hoover Institution in 2011.

Dr. Ajami received many awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982 and a National Humanities Medal in 2006. He leaves his wife, Michelle. In a profile in The Nation in 2003, Adam Shatz described Dr. Ajami’s distinctive appearance, characterized by a “dramatic beard, stylish clothes and a charming, almost flirtatious manner.”

He continued: “On television, he radiates above-the-frayness, speaking with the wry, jaded authority that men in power admire, especially in men who have risen from humble roots. Unlike the other Arabs, he appears to have no axe to grind. He is one of us; he is the good Arab.”

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