Across the Bay

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Fouad Ajami Talk

Via Martin Kramer comes this link to an excellent talk by Fouad Ajami and Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute.

As usual, Ajami was on his game. Ajami is a master story-teller too, and great at synthesis. I found myself nodding away, saying to myself: "Yes! That's right!"

There are so many great funny lines in there. Take this one for instance:

"The Shia have ten days of self-flagellation, the Ashura, the ten days of mourning for Imam Hussain, but America is very different. America has 365 days of self-flagellation. This is the background to a lot of these public diplomacy concerns."

Or this one that I truly identified with:

"Here are two Arabic newspapers. I usually read them on a daily basis. It's almost like something you do to punish yourself."

This is not to leave out Satloff, whose comments are also very insightful.

Recommended reading.

Disclaimer: It dawned on me last night that there is one thing that Ajami said with which I'm uncomfortable. That is his reference to Atatürk's line on leading "despite the people." I think I know where Ajami is coming from on this, and I sympathize with him on his disappointment with the Arab world. Nevertheless, the notion that people in the ME need to be led despite of themselves sounds too close to what Arab nationalist and Islamist regimes have been saying. In fact, it sounds close to Husri's line about an Arab being an Arab whether he likes it or not! That he needs to be educated to realize his innate Arabness, or if necessary, forced to realize it. This only reinforces the idea that Arab-Muslims are sheep who will only be led by their noses, as my friend Josh Landis put it.

That Ajami is struggling with his disappointments is obvious, as he'd just finished lambasting Arab leaders for their failures and deceit! That alone undermines the universality of Atatürk's dictum. Granted, leadership often entails taking hard decisions that are often unpopular. It's a difficult and thorny issue because sometimes "the masses" are simply wrong or uninformed. Before any Leftists or neo-liberals jump all over me, just remember the civil rights movement! If you had left it to democratic federalism, many southern states wouldn't have accepted desegregation. Also, statist nations are familiar with a variation of leading "despite the people" or "regardless of the people."

It's a very delicate matter, and again I'll dare to say that I understand Ajami's emotions on this. However, to codify that in the person of the leader is dangerous.