The Caravan

Ajami’s Method

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Aspects of Fouad Ajami’s method are inimitable, or nearly so, inseparable from the distinctive personality of this one remarkable thinker. His reflections on the politics of the Middle East always depended on his empathetic understanding of the cultures, the complex histories, the literary achievements, and the ever-present currents of faith. Add to this his specifically Lebanese perspective, indisputably rooted in the region but also always with an eye to the sea, to the West, and to a very different political-cultural world.

No one else will be able to reproduce precisely the tenor of his descriptions and the nuances of his understanding, let alone the grace of his prose, but for all of his uniqueness, we can also speak of an Ajami methodology as a model for the study of the Middle East, a field of scholarship torn between conventional political science and ideology-driven narrowness. Ajami’s style avoids both. It is neither flatly quantitative, devoid of history, nor does it ever indulge in the robotic radicalism that has overrun much of the field. Radicals instrumentalize the study of the Middle East only in order to blame Western imperialism, as if the Middle East had no substance of its own; Ajami looked at the region in order to vindicate its history in its own right and to claim a better future.

The Ajami legacy for scholarship recognizes the need for history to understand the present, and the need for cultural hermeneutics to illuminate politics. His writings show the rare capacity to bridge the gap between what Max Weber called different “value spheres,” the realms of both meaning and power, without undermining the integrity of either. This was his own achievement, to be sure, but he might well have hurried to point out how this methodology, joining areas of inquiry otherwise separated by standard academic specialization, is especially appropriate to the topic. Ajami leads us into this particular region, the Middle East, in which structures of state power still draw on streams of culture and tradition in ways rarely seen in the modernized governance institutions of the West, where expectations of a certain rationalization neutralize otherwise explosive tensions. His approach was indisputably his, but it was also the right approach to illuminate this topic. Other scholars can therefore learn from this approach and build on his accomplishments.

In different ways across the course of his career, Ajami implicitly measured Arab political culture against the paradigm of the West, for which his post-colonial critics, especially from the comfort of American universities, eagerly vilified him. Yet it was hardly colonial nostalgia that set the West as a norm. It was instead the substance of the matter, an unshakeable commitment to the goal of political self-governance and the urgency of civil rights, in other words, his deeply humane insistence that the peoples of the region deserve the benefits of liberal democratic forms of government. We have to remember how provocative this claim remains. Some still argue that human rights are merely expressions of western imperialism, while others gloat that Arabs are incapable of democracy. (The same claim used to be made about Germans.) Ajami’s writings are a record of the region’s troubled aspirations for freedom and his own hope that the Arab spring might lead to profound reform. His last two books engage precisely with this challenge. The Syrian Rebellion (2012) treats the prospects for the end of the Assad dictatorship through a popular uprising, and now its dialectical counterpart, Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia, delves into the chance for a transformation of a very different polity, deeply religious and traditional (unlike Syria) and nonetheless facing the unsettling tides of modernization.

Ajami’s perceptive treatment of the objective forces of change inside Saudi society is especially urgent now. The rationales for American engagement in the Middle East region are changing, no longer primarily a matter of counterterrorism, shifting instead toward competition with our great power rivals, China and Russia. Saudi Arabia remains a key piece of the puzzle. Yet the Kingdom is, to say the least, an imperfect partner, as the reprehensible 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi underscored. That crime was rightly condemned, but when voices in Washington began to call for a severing of ties with Riyadh, the Crown Prince promptly set off on a trip that took him to Beijing. In today’s multipolar environment, any state, including Saudi Arabia, can hedge its bets and seek alternative alliances. Proponents of policies that would lead to a clear break because Saudi Arabia does not meet our norms have to explain how pushing Riyadh into the arms of the Chinese will improve matters. Beijing is unlikely to raise human rights concerns.

In Crosswinds, Ajami points us in a different direction. There are real potentials for liberalization in Saudi politics and society, among the youth, in the calls for women’s rights, in the changing economy and media environment and elsewhere. In such matters, his methodological attention to the complexities of culture points to possibilities for American policy: maintaining the cooperation with Riyadh and appreciating Saudi Arabia as an alternative to the export of the Iranian revolution, while at the same time encouraging and assisting the Saudis in finding ways to work toward civil rights and self-governance. That may seem like a tall order, but positive engagement with the Saudis and throughout the region is the only way to do justice to American values by supporting processes that combine stability with the reforms that Arab civil society is pursuing.