- By Will Inboden
With the untimely death of Fouad Ajami on Sunday, the world has lost a singular man. He was a scholar, a gentleman, and a patriot.
His life and career bridged many divides: between the West and the Middle East; between scholarship and the policy world; between academic insight and elegant prose. That last quality may be where his legacy will most endure. To say he was a "gifted stylist" is true yet somehow inadequate, an understatement that fails to appreciate the effort he poured into crafting language of uncommon beauty and lapidary expression. Even when writing about grim subjects such as the torments afflicting the Middle East, he rendered his insights in evocative turns of phrase that often transported the reader into a forgotten era of scholarship-as-literature. The Wall Street Journal has collected some brief excerpts from his writings here.
A relentlessly original thinker, Ajami resisted the seductions of the ideological trends that too often capture and politicize the academy. This left him subject to frequent, often unsparing criticism from some of his fellow scholars, but one always had the sense that Ajami paid little mind to such disparagement. He was always refreshingly content to research, write, and speak of the world as he saw it. Yet even in his death, those tensions resurface, such as in the discordant condescension of the closing quote in this New York Times obituary. The author’s reliance on the jaundiced lens of the Nation as an interpretive guide is unfortunate.
I did not know Fouad well, but our several meetings and occasional correspondence over the years were always valuable, informative, and memorable. He spoke as fluidly as he wrote, as entire paragraphs of insight effortlessly rolled off his tongue in seemingly casual conversation. Some of his policy judgments were right, such as warning of the brittle fragility of the Middle East’s many autocracies, and noting the role of American power in preserving a semblance of a security order and the possibility of a better political order. Other of his policy judgments were wrong, most notoriously his excessive optimism about the Iraq War. In each case, he drew on his encyclopedic and insightful knowledge of a perplexing region that continues to vex policymakers of every presidential administration.
As Peter Wehner observes, while Fouad was many things, foremost he was an American patriot. He possessed an abiding love for his adopted nation, a unique affection and appreciation for the United States often known by those born elsewhere who choose to come here. America, and the world, are now lesser places without him.