October 11, 2001
The Failed Intellectuals
"Dream Palace of the Arabs:A Generation's Odyssey" by Fouad Ajami (Vintage Books, $14).
In 1928, the French intellectual Julien Benda wrote his prescient work "The Treason of the Intellectuals," accusing European intellectuals of abandoning their dispassionate faith in the life of the mind and, through their engagement with the political passions of the age, justifying the horrors that were soon to bloody the continent. He did not counsel them to reject politics, but to fight against the prejudiced passions that burned in European hearts.
Fouad Ajami's "Dream Palace of the Arabs" lacks Benda's harshness and polemics, but illustrates how fragile and tenuous are the intellectuals' claims on political life. In these four extended essays, Ajami examines the failure of the leading 20th century Arab intellectuals to create a compelling, modern narrative that would rescue the Arab mind and world from obscurantism, narrowness, parochialism, exploitation and weakness. Each of the solutions explored -- pan-Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, Palestinian revolution, secularism, Westernization -- failed to lead Arab culture and Arab states out of their backwater.
Instead, the rising intellectuals, rebounding from failure after failure, have embraced a blind, automatic anti-Western, anti-American prejudice leavened by the rising tide of "Islamic fundamentalism," which should more appropriately be described as an Islamic revolutionary-nostalgic utopianism (or, at this juncture, following, simply Islamo-fascism).
Osama bin Ladin's revolutionary reading of Islamic texts did not surface overnight: they grew in an intellectual hothouse of failed dreams and smashed illusions. Ajami, and other eminent scholars such as Bernard Lewis and John Esposito, have covered much of this ground.
Islamic-Arabic culture is a culture of words and writing. Ajami explores the life and circumstances of poets and novelists of the particular generation that threw off Western imperial domination, but were unable to create a lasting modern Arab political world. Most, but not all, were politically engaged. The first of the four essays is written by Khalil Hawi, a famed Christian Lebanese poet who committed suicide in the wake of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Yet, Hawi was, Ajami tells us, already isolated, stricken by the complicated Lebanese civil war that had destroyed the old, urbane Beirut.
Ajami, a Lebanese-born secularized Shia now at the pinnacle of American academic and intellectual success, holds out the hope that the heritage of these rejected, isolated and increasingly marginalized intellectuals can resurface, and lead the Arab world into a serious rapprochement with the West.
While we now wait breathlessly for each word and image of the breaking crisis, we should not neglect to consider what forces and ideas gave birth to our circumstances. Ajami's work, while older, demands our attention. One generation's failure gave rise to another, one filled with visceral hatred. As we applauded (and nurtured to some degree) the intellectuals that formulated an Eastern European and Russian resistance to communism, so too should we know about (and perhaps nurture) the Arab and Muslim intellectuals who resist Islamic fascism. "Dream Palace" is one of the best ways to start that endeavor.