In June, those of us who try to keep up with events in the Greater Middle East suffered a devastating blow when the Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami passed away. Having broken with the orthodoxy of his generation of Arabs and his scholarly field, both represented in the person of Edward Said, Ajami provided insight into the Arab/Muslim world that restored the agency of that world.
This book, published posthumously, looks at the three countries—Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—where the great contest for regional order is now underway. The Sunni-led rebellion in Syria has burst its frontiers, reigniting civil war in Iraq, and fragile, sectarian Lebanon again teeters. Over the top of the local power-struggle has been laid a region-wide sectarian war between the Sunnis and Shi’ites, and behind that stand regional power-brokers: Saudi Arabia at the head of the Sunni bloc and Iran at the head of the Shi’a axis.
Ajami’s greatest gifts, apart from his wonderful, poetic prose, are to give the historical background without appearing to do so, to impart the information in a way the reader can easily take, and to impress upon the reader how this looks on the ground, where it is often more complex than the harsh lines drawn by the zealots.
For example, Ajami describes the renegade Lebanese Salafist cleric, Ahmad al-Assir, wanted by Lebanese authorities after his men clashed with (and killed) members of the Armed Forces:
“Assir was an urban populist who fused religion and a sense of economic discontent. But the merchants of the Sidon [a.k.a. Saida] souk could not adopt his militant way: they needed the business of the Shia, who could, when they saw fit, bring the life of the souk to a standstill.”
Ideological purity sometimes wars with the facts of life; alas the latter do not always win out.
In Lebanon, the victory for ideology over practicality is seen in the Hizballah. There had been expectations that the Party of God would “go local” but they have been dashed; it remains a proxy of the Iranian theocracy. No Lebanese calculation would have plunged the Hizballah into the Syrian war, but its ideology of wilayat al-faqih, the guiding theology of the Iranian regime, makes Iran’s Supreme Leader its commander, and Ali Khamenei gave the order that they were to rescue Bashar al-Assad. There has long been a school of thought that the Hizballah is actually a local phenomenon and that its connections to Tehran are incidental, a mere entryist effort by Tehran to gain influence inside Lebanon; this is nonsense and Ajami says so. The Hizballah was created by Iran and it is an extension of its State power.
Of Ajami’s many sins in life against Middle East Studies orthodoxy, the one that probably got him into the most trouble was his refusal to assign Israel a leading role in what ails the Arabs. By now it must be obvious even to some long-time advocates of this “Israel-first,” if you will, explanation that the facts are refusing to conform to theory. Israel is “a mere spectator to a bitter sectarian fight,” Ajami notes, not that this has stopped the Hizballah, and the Iranian axis more broadly, “garb[ing] this struggle in the familiar fight with Israel.” For instance, Hizballah jihadists in Syria said that the rebels were fighting with Israeli tanks. The “Resistance Axis” (Jabhat al-Muqawama) had always deflected attention from its depredations with anti-Zionism; it knows no other way. In the final irony, there are now members of that legendary “Arab street,” Sunnis who had been taken in by the Assad dictatorship’s claim to be the “beating heart of Arabism,” a frontline State in the struggle to get rid of the Zionist project, who now “tak[e] their children … to Israeli hospitals“. This should “bring such fraudulent claims to a long overdue end.”
Ajami is also harsh on those who try to air-brush the role of religion. In Lebanese and other Arab newspapers, it has sometimes been attempted to say that young men who become suicide bombers had “complicated” home lives, or even that they were “mentally unbalanced“. But, Ajami notes, when the trail is followed it invariably discloses a man drawn into religion who gave his life in god’s name.
Ajami narrates the struggle that has raged these last few years and concludes that the “rancid hate that now separates the Alawis and the Sunnis of Syria” likely means that that national compact is finished; there will be no putting the pieces back together when the violence stops. Ajami is more hopeful for Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanon has muddled through many times before and its memory of civil war has meant that the violence has largely been kept off its territory this time. If the Hizballah can be cut down to size—granting the Shi’a the place demanded by their demographic weight but no more—Lebanon stands a chance. For all the bloodshed and chaos in Iraq, there is a great deal of wealth that can be dispensed to cushion a lot of this, and perhaps provide a workable compact.
Ajami has surprisingly little to say about the Sunni jihadists on the loose in Iraq and Syria; he recognises that groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have a transience that Iran does not. This brings Ajami to a note of pity. He was accused during the Iraq war of, among other things, being a Shi’a partisan; in the Syrian struggle he has had accusations of turning his back on his own for supporting the rebellion. In truth, Ajami’s worldview always encompassed everybody—the Alawis trapped by the Assad dictatorship into complicity with its crimes and the Sunni victims of those crimes. Ajami cautions that Arab Shi’ism is different than Persian Shi’ism. He records the statement of Muhammad Reda al-Ghurayfi, a trusted aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali as-Sistani in Najaf—Sistani being the most respected Shi’a jurist in the world and the leading opponent of wilayat al-faqih. An envoy of the Hizballah had been sent to Najaf, and Ghurayfi said:
“We told him to go back and tell his leader [Hassan Nasrallah] that we are constantly praying for his undoing. We are through with the likes of Nasrallah.”
Iran’s tributaries do not have the sole run of Iraq, even among the Shi’a, but it is nonetheless true, as Ajami notes, that the Shi’a have come to a level of influence virtually unseen in Islamic history, especially in Arab lands, and it has been driven by the State power of Iran. Ajami concludes:
“It would be a singular tale of loss and sorrow if Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and the newly empowered Shia warlords in Iraq were to sully Shiism with their dark deeds, taking away from it the sense of mercy that was always its guiding light.”