Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Ambushing Ajami
Sunday evening the Lebanese LBCI satellite channel interviewed American-Lebanese academic Fouad Ajami on its The Event show, with Shada Omar. What started as a talk-show quickly turned into an ambush. On the show, too, was former Iraqi minister Abdel Razzaq Hashemi. Predictably, Hashemi spent the program personally attacking Ajami, who supports the Iraq campaign and is indeed one of its ideologues.

More surprising was Omar's performance. Several times she cut Ajami off, and twice she departed from Iraq to suggest he was pro-Israeli. LBCI also allowed a viewer, one Bushra Khalil, to call in and report that former US president George Bush had allegedly said of Ajami: "No one hates the Arabs like him."

Ajami's reaction was interesting. Though he defended the Anglo-American attack as an opportunity to establish a new liberal order in the Middle East, it was only when he resorted to Shiite symbolism that I believed he scored points with the largely pro-Iraqi audience. He berated Hashemi, asking him about Saddam’s innumerable victims, prominent among them that of the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his venerated sister Bint al-Huda, whom the Iraqi leader ordered savagely executed in 1980. A friend of mine recently informed me that Lebanese Hizbullah officials to this day speak of those murders with a quiver in their voice.

I was Fouad's student, and he was kind enough to invite me recently to give lectures at my alma mater, Johns Hokins SAIS. However, I had never heard him speak in Arabic and found very intriguing, and understandable in the context, his resort to the highly emotional Baqir al-Sadr and Bint al-Huda passion play, an essential moment in recent Shiite history in Iraq. It was ironical that only minutes before Ajami had described himself as "not an Arab, but an American of Arab origin, who left Lebanon as a young man and who took the U.S. nationality because I believe in American values."

I accept the latter statement at face value, but was genuinely fascinated by his ability to invoke a powerful Arab image. Fascinated, and happy to see his detractors hunt for an impossible response to such an elemental example of Saddam's brutality--but also to a challenge spoken in a language they could understand, since his earlier comments on a liberal order fell largely on deaf ears.

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