Remembering the great Fouad Ajami

In a year replete with devastating news, the June 22 death of Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami hit especially hard. For decades, Fouad, a man of genius I was honored to call a friend, was an invaluable mentor in matters involving the Arab world and its often-lethal discontents. It was a cauldron of self-destructive passions he knew well, this Lebanese Shiite who came to the United States because he found here a model of the civility and tolerance he wished for his people.

Fouad Ajami described the pathologies of the Arab world with singular clarity and literary grace. His was not the carping of the exile who despises what he has left; it was the sharp, penetrating, and ultimately compassionate (because true) critique of one who mourned the catastrophic condition of contemporary Arab civilization, the hijacking of Arab politics by self-serving dictators, virulent anti-Semites, and Islamist fanatics, and the untold lives warped or lost in consequence. That deep, moral passion about the corruptions of Arab culture was never more eloquently expressed than in the column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, a month after 9/11:

“A darkness, a long winter, has descended on the Arabs. Nothing grows in the middle between an authoritarian political order and populations given to perennial flings with dictators, abandoned to their most malignant hatreds. Something is amiss in an Arab world that besieges American embassies for visas and at the same time celebrates America’s calamities. Something has gone terribly wrong in a world where young men strap themselves with explosives, only to be hailed as “martyrs” and “avengers.”

Some months ago, I got an e-mail from Fouad, expressing his enthusiasm for what he had seen of Pope Francis and teasing me that, under these circumstances, he might become a Catholic. It was a light-hearted comment with a serious undertone. For years, Fouad had told me of his respect for John Paul II and Benedict XVI; he had also invited me to address his seminar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on the role of the Catholic Church in shaping world politics. That role, Fouad understood, had changed. The power the Church deployed today was not the political power it once wielded; it was now moral power, the power of persuasion and reason, both of which Fouad believed essential to the Arab world’s recovery from the intellectual morass into which it had sunk centuries ago.

Thus while the herd of independent minds was having a field day condemning Benedict XVI for his 2006 Regensburg Lecture, Fouad understood that the Bavarian pope had correctly identified the two critical challenges that contemporary history posed to 21st-century Islam: the challenges of finding, within authoritative Islamic sources, Islamic warrants underwriting religious tolerance and distinguishing religious and political authority in public life.

The answer to political Islamism and jihadism, Fouad knew, was not turning hundreds of millions of Muslims into good secular liberals; that simply wasn’t going to happen, the fantasies of secular foreign policy strategists notwithstanding. But there was an alternative. The Catholic Church had retrieved lost elements of its own tradition, and learned some new things along the way, in coming to terms with religious freedom and political modernity. That’s what Islam would have to do.

Fouad Ajami would have been heartbroken over Mosul being emptied of its Christians by the homicidal maniacs of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Middle East he longed to help bring to birth was a region that would honor its many religious traditions and cherish the cultural gifts each faith offered its neighbors. The incomprehensible carelessness of Americans in washing their hands of Iraq in recent years deeply saddened him. So, I expect, did the tendency of Christian leaders in the Middle East to curry favor with the dictator in power, in the vain hope that their communities would be left alone. That was strategic folly, Fouad knew, because it helped empower the criminals and the haters.

May the great soul of this man of reason and decency rest in peace.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash