Monday, September 17, 2007

Dream Palace of the Neocons

Fouad Ajami yesterday in Tigris Beat magazine, err, the Wall Street Journal, remembering Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reisha:
“This was the dashing tribal leader who emerged as the face of the new Sunni accommodation with American power, and who was assassinated by al Qaeda last week. I had not been ready for his youth (born in 1971), nor for his flamboyance. Sir David Lean, the legendary director of "Lawrence of Arabia," would have savored encountering this man. There was style, and an awareness of it, in Abu Reisha: his brown abaya bordered with gold thread, a neat white dishdasha, and a matching headdress.”

The air was heavy with cardamom and fatoush, the palms beat gently in the breeze...or was it my heart? The rest of Ajami’s piece shows Abu Reisha as someone who had mastered the art of telling Americans exactly what they wanted to hear, and Ajami as someone completely committed to playing along. Given Ajami’s reputation as an analyst and interpreter of high-flown Arab rhetoric, it’s astonishing how credulous he becomes when that rhetoric accords with his own political beliefs. As tragic as Abu Reisha’s death is, at least we’ve now been spared the spectacle of conservative pundits inevitably turning against him after it finally became apparent to them, long after it had become apparent to everybody else, that Abu Reisha actually had his own political agenda, and it was quite different from theirs.

I should mention that Ajami’s The Foreigner’s Gift is actually a pretty good book on Iraq. Ajami writes about the various elements of Iraqi society, particularly modern Iraqi Shia history and political thought, with an elegance and depth that is to be found nowhere else among the various experts upon whom neoconservatives usually rely to consecrate their aggression. That Ajami employs this elegance in the service of a fantastically simplistic and transparently self-serving thesis, Iraqis stupidly refused America’s gift of freedom, is unfortunate, but it’s also key to understanding Ajami’s role in the neoconservative vanguard.

In his most popular work, Dream Palace of the Arabs, Ajami criticized modern Arab writers and intellectuals for having created a fictional sense of their own modernity and secularism, which Ajami claims has promoted a chauvinistic and conspiratorial worldview throughout the Arab world. Consider this quote from the book:

“In an Arab political history littered with thwarted dreams, little honor would be extended to pragmatists who knew the limits of what could and could not be done. The political culture of nationalism reserved its approval for those who led ruinous campaigns in pursuit of impossible quests.”

Heh, indeed, those deluded Arabs and their ruinous campaigns in pursuit of impossible quests. Luckily, we in the modern, civilized, freedom-loving West have abandoned such things. The ramifications of this kind of analysis should be clear: We don’t really have to listen to what Arabs say, they’re dishonest with themselves and with us, and thus we can ignore their protestations and warnings as we set about remaking their societies.

I don’t particularly disagree with Ajami that much of modern Arab political and intellectual discourse has been constrained within a series of rhetorical edifices, nationalist mythologies, and self-justifying victimization narratives. I disagree, however, that there is anything profoundly or uniquely "Arab" about this. The construction of rhetorical edifices is not just a feature of Arab politics; it is a feature of politics. The fact that Ajami’s quote above could serve as an accurate description of George W. Bush’s Middle East adventurism bears this out. Fouad Ajami has been a tireless propagandist for that adventurism, and, I would argue, given that he’s one of the very few neoconservative writers who possesses more than basic knowledge of the region, an invaluable one. He has consistently employed his literary and rhetorical skills to help the neocons construct and maintain a picture of the Middle East, and of America, that is a fantasy in the service of folly. It’s deeply ironic that, having notably attempted to deconstruct the Arabs’ "dream palace," Ajami has so enthusiastically laid stone for the neocons’ own.

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