Juan Cole on ENGAGING THE MUSLIM WORLD: An Overview for Teachers

Alan Shapiro provides background for teachers on the 'standoff' between the Muslim world and the West through an overview of the new book by Middle East scholar Juan Cole.

To the Teacher

"Westerners worry about terrorism, intolerance, and immigration. Muslims are anxious about neo-imperialism, ridicule, and discrimination," Juan Cole writes in the introduction to his book, Engaging the Muslim World. In it he examines "the myths and realities that provoke Islam Anxiety in the West, and the grounds, legitimate and illegitimate, for America Anxiety in the Muslim world (and often in the rest of the world, as well)."
Juan Cole's credentials include living in Muslim societies, beginning as a teenager in Ethiopia (now Eritrea), where his father was in the army. Later, he lived and worked in Beirut, Amman, Tehran, and Cairo. Cole learned several languages of the region, including Arabic, studied classical Islamic civilization, and traveled in India and Pakistan. Today he is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. He is widely regarded as an expert on that region, and writes a daily blog, "Informed Comment," mostly on Middle East issues, at www.juancole.com.
The following overview of major aspects of Engaging the Muslim World and excerpt from Cole's blog, "Informed Comment." aim to provide background for teachers on what the author calls a "standoff" between the Muslim world and the West.
Consider, for example, the "standoff" reported by the New York Times in August. The Times recounts an exchange between Judith McHale, the Obama administration's under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, and Ansar Abbasi, a Pakistani journalist, in a hotel conference room in Islamabad, Pakistan
Abbasi told McHale: "You should know that we hate all Americans. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you." The Times reported that after McHale "gave her initial polite presentation about building bridges between America and the Muslim world, Mr. Abbasi thanked her politely for meeting with him. Then he told her that he hated her." According to McHale, "'He told me that we were no longer human beings because our goal was to eliminate other humans.'" (New York Times (8/20/09)
In Engaging the Muslim World, Cole writes, "Most Muslims in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia think America wants to weaken and divide the Islamic world and gain control over Middle East oil. Nearly two-thirds believe the U.S. aims to spread Christianity in their countries. Three-quarters want all American troops and bases out of their region."
Meanwhile, "two-thirds of Americans admit to having at least some prejudice against Muslims. Nearly half doubt that American Muslims are loyal to the U.S." And Newsweek reported a few years ago that President Bush sometimes used the term "Islamic fascists." (9/11/06)
From Cole's perspective, "These militant attitudes and the constant demonization of others...have ratcheted up conflict between the West and the Muslim world. At the same time, "the publics in the West and in the Muslim world emphasize that good relations with one another are important to them."

Oil and terrorism

Petroleum, Cole writes, is "among the major drivers of America's Islam Anxiety" because most of it comes from nations with Muslim majorities. Two thirds of the world's proven petroleum reserves are held by Persian Gulf states. The U.S. will depend on petroleum products for the foreseeable future—despite the growing recognition that they fuel climate change and make Americans dependent upon Middle East suppliers. Cole argues that "many policies made by politicians to ensure that the United States and its allies have access to oil and gas are dressed up for the public as being about vague ideals such as patriotism, democracy, or deterring allegedly threatening regimes."
1949: The Truman administration overthrew the elected government in Syria because it opposed the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, through which oil from Saudi Arabia would flow to a Mediterranean port in Lebanon for shipment to the West.
1953: A CIA coup in 1953 ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran. Mossadegh, Cole writes, "had made the error of trying to nationalize Iran's petroleum, foolishly arguing that it belonged to his country" and not to Britain or American oil companies seeking to profit from this precious resource. The U.S. and Britain then selected, and for 26 years supported, Iranian leader Mohammad Reza Pahlevi Shah, whom Iranians learned to hate.
2008: General John Abizaid, the former CENTCOM commander, said in a discussion at Stanford University that "of course" the Iraq war "is about oil."
Such U.S. actions and attitudes help to explain why "Muslims are anxious about neo-imperialism," says Cole. The West has a long history of occupation and colonial control of Muslim-majority countries in Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and the Far East.
Cole argues that "enormous dangers lurk for the industrialized democracies" in the "temptation to meddle." U.S. and UN economic sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1990s made medicine and even food unavailable or unaffordable, which led to the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. In 1996 Osama bin Laden pointed to these sanctions as a reason to attack the United States.

Muslim radicals' anxiety

Fifteen of the 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorists were from Saudi Arabia. The other four were also from the Middle East. The attacks spawned Americans' use of such epithets as "Islamofascists." 9/11 also enabled the Bush administration to convince frightened Americans and allied leaders that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to al Qaeda. And so the Bush administration was able to sell the Iraq invasion as part of its"war on terror."
Cole writes that terms such as "Islamofascist" "are offensive insofar as they defame the religion of Islam in general. The word 'Islamic,' like 'Judaic,' refers to the ideals of the religion...There can, of course, be Muslim criminals and Muslim terrorists," Cole acknowledges, just as there can be Christian criminals and terrorists. But nobody would think to call Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing168 people, "Christian terrorists."
No terrorists or acts of terrorism have come from most of the more than 50 countries with Muslim majorities. Even in Saudi Arabia, where almost everyone is Islamic, the vast majority of people are opposed to Al Qaeda and support their government's pursuit of al Qaeda militants.

Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan

President Obama declared on March 27, 2009, that the U.S. and its allies must "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama announced that an additional 4,000 American troops would join the 17,000 he had already sent to Afghanistan. "The situation is increasingly perilous," said the president. "The safety of people around the world is at stake."
On August 17, 2009, Obama stated that "Al Qaeda and its allies have moved their base to the remote tribal areas of Pakistan." He acknowledged that "military power alone will not win this war—we also need diplomacy and development and good governance." He emphasized that his strategy "has a clear mission and defined goals—to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies."
"This is not a war of choice," Obama concluded. "This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."

Cole's critique

On his blog, Cole commented: "I couldn't catch the significance of Al Qaeda's move to northwest Pakistan for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan itself." He worried that Obama's "major emphasis...is on sending more troops there," adding "I'm not sure that the Taliban can be effectively disrupted by military means." Cole wondered why, despite his words, Obama appears not to focus on diplomatic efforts.
As for Al Qaeda, Cole says: "They don't seem to have a presence in Afghanistan any more to speak of. What is called Al Qaeda in the northwest of Pakistan is often just Uzbek, Tajik and Uighur political refugees who have fled their own countries in the region because their Muslim fundamentalism is not welcomed by those regimes. The old Al Qaeda of Bin Laden...appears to have been effectively disrupted. Terrorist attacks in the West are sometimes still planned by unconnected cells who are Al Qaeda wannabes, but I don't see evidence of command and control capabilities by Al Qaeda Central. There is frankly no reason to think that if the anti-Karzai guerrillas did gain more territory in Afghanistan, they would suddenly start hosting Al Qaeda operatives who were sure to bring the West back in once they attacked it...
"Obama maintains that the U.S. and NATO troops can protect Afghan villagers from the Taliban. But can 100,000 foreign troops really provide domestic security to 34 million people?....I can see an argument for trying to build up the Afghan army...But I can't see Afghanistan as a threat to U.S. security."
Obama projected a long haul in Afghanistan, saying, "This will not be quick. This will not be easy." Cole commented, "I'm not sure his party will put up with that, or if the American public will either, given the economic crisis and the cost of foreign wars."
In his book, Cole writes that "Westerners confuse the social conflict between urban and rural society in [Afghanistan and Pakistan] with mere terrorism and tend to assume that the deployment of military might...against rural and tribal peoples is synonymous with a war on terror." Cole points out that 9/11 "was launched not from...Afghanistan but from Hamburg in Germany, not by tribal persons...but by engineers trained in the West. Even in their heyday in the 1990s, the Taliban were seldom directly involved in committing international terrorism."
Afghans suffer in a land devastated by 30 years of almost non-stop warfare with the Soviets and among themselves, an American and NATO invasion, and a new Taliban insurgency. Drought, unemployment, and drug trafficking further plague a country that has long been ruled by warlords and ethnic and clan leaders. Afghanistan never had an effective central government, and suffers now from a weak, corrupt government in Kabul.
Cole reports that "virtually all the people in the region are Muslims." Afghanistan's constitution "forbids parliament to enact civil legislation that contradicts 'the beliefs and laws of Islam." The struggle between the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, most of whom come from the Pashtun ethnic group, "is over the interpretation and the limits of Muslim fundamentalism rather than whether Muslim fundamentalism should be the center for law and domestic policy."
"The conflict also has an imperial context," Cole writes, "with proud Pashtun villagers rejecting U.S. and NATO domination." That domination has included efforts to keep Afghan farmers from growing poppy, which provides their livelihood. And it includes air attacks that have killed civilians. Similarly, villagers in neighboring Pakistan resent deeply the American pilotless drones whose bombs kill civilians as well as militants.
The backdrop for all these issues is energy. In April 2008, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India signed an agreement to build a pipeline through their countries to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan. "The United States strongly backs the project, which would make a rival Iranian pipeline plan a dead letter and would reduce Russia's leverage on the natural gas market." However, Cole writes, "Because of the continued instability in southern Afghanistan, the prospects [for building the pipeline] are deeply uncertain..."
America's anxiety about Pakistan," Cole argues, "derives from Westerners...not understanding the social and economic dynamics that drive its tensions with the West." These dynamics include extremes of wealth and poverty; rival ethnic groups; tribal areas not under government control that provide a haven from which militants attack Afghanistan; terrorist suicide bombings aimed at destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistan government; a 60-year conflict between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India over the latter's control of south and central Kashmir; and a "double game" played by the Pakistani military, which fights the Pakistani Taliban and a small Al Qaeda force, but at the same time apparently continues to support the Afghan Taliban despite official denials.


Iran's modern history, Cole notes, is one of domination "by Britain, Russia, and the United States." Iranians, he says, are "tired of having their government and economic policies dictated to them by foreigners, for the benefit of foreigners."
"The problems between the United States and Iran are rooted partially in the 1979 overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlevi Shah." The 1979 revolution brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in the new Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocratic government with only limited democratic elements.
"Khomeinism consisted of several themes," writes Cole, including anti-Americanism, national autonomy, Shiite clergy rule, and state socialism. "Ironically," he says, "Washington's own policies in recent years have profoundly benefited Iran and allowed it to emerge as a regional player on a scale unprecedented since the 1970s." The Bush administration destroyed the Taliban's Sunni fundamentalist rule after 9/11 and then Sunni control of Iraq. The Shiite government that then came to power in Iraq "is a natural ally" of the Shiite government in Iran. Not only do the two governments have a common religion, they have close ties because many Shiites fled Saddam's repression for exile in Shiite-friendly Iran.
The U.S. fears Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, not just nuclear power. But Cole maintains that Iranian leaders believe that "the only way for the country to maintain its independence in the long term is to have an independent nuclear enrichment capability and a network of nuclear energy plants...There is no evidence that it has a nuclear weapons program, though [Iran] is not being entirely transparent to UN inspectors."
However Cole thinks that "Iran should be convinced that nuclear reactors are the wrong path to energy independence," for many reasons—including the risk of a meltdown, the problem of where and how to store spent nuclear fuel, and the high cost of uranium.
Cole says that it is important to remember that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "is relatively powerless, does not control policy on security and energy issues, and serves at the pleasure of the Supreme Jurisprudent," Ali Khamenei.
In the final analysis, Cole believes there is little evidence that Iran poses a military or terrorist threat. Its annual military budget, "at a little over $6 billion a year...is in the same range as that of Norway...There is no proof that Iran has ever transferred non- conventional weapons to groups designated as terrorists by the United States, and there is every reason to believe that it would not do so even if it had them." Nor has it "launched an aggressive war against a neighbor for at least 150 years..."
Iran's support for the militant groups Hizbullah and Hamas is, Cole says "a fact and a legitimate concern for the North Atlantic states and their allies." But although the U.S. State Department lists Hizbollah as a terrorist organization, it is now "a formal agent of the Lebanese state," says Cole. Since about 1998, "the party has done little or nothing that would qualify as international terrorism."
The Palestinian group Hamas has been responsible for violence against civilians, and the ideology of Hamas "is a repressive religious fundamentalism," writes Cole. But since winning Palestinian elections, Hamas is "a legitimate political player...Hamas leaders have repeatedly indicated a willingness to conclude a very long-term truce with Israel." Cole believes that "Israel's unwillingness to negotiate with elected representatives of the Palestinian people, and its brutality toward civilians, gives Iran an opening to establish influence on the Mediterranean region that could be combated by more realistic and less belligerent Israeli policies."

Engaging the Muslim world

"The pressing problems facing the North Atlantic and Muslim countries can be addressed successfully only by mutual cooperation," Cole writes. "Putting aside the more irrational forms of America Anxiety and Islam Anxiety is a prerequisite for such teamwork in tackling the energy crisis, reigning in religious fundamentalists, bringing stability to postwar Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing Khomeinist Iran in from the cold, and resolving the six-decades-old Israel-Palestine conflict." These two sentences represent the essence of Cole's prescription for the engagement he discusses in his final chapter.
A few elements of Cole's call for engagement:
  • recognition of "the legitimate and economic discontents of the rural population" in Afghanistan and Pakistan and an effort "to redress them with well considered aid programs instead of with bombs."
  • cooperation between Interpol, the FBI, and security agencies in the Muslim world to counter violent radical groups.
  • cultural interchange. Cole thinks major works of Islamic civilization and current religious and political thought need to be made available to all. He also thinks the works of Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. should be translated into Arabic. These works cannot now be found in Cairo and Beirut bookstores.
  • Redirecting the billions of dollars of aid that Pakistan now uses to pay for high-tech arms from the U.S. Instead, Cole says, aid money should support the government school system's effort to open students' minds.
  • "ensuring Iran's energy independence and assuring the government that the United States will not attempt to overthrow it."
  • making a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "the highest priority" of the Obama administration
Cole concludes: "The contemporary world offers unprecedented opportunity for political and cultural teamwork between the North Atlantic countries and the Muslim world, and the pressing problems we face can only be resolved through such collaboration. Doing so will require a setting aside of Islam Anxiety and America Anxiety, a return to wise and persistent diplomacy, and a spirit of compromise on all sides. We can do it, if we engage."
In what the New York Times called "a searing critique" of U.S. government efforts at "strategic communication" with the Muslim world, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike McMullen wrote, "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate...Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."
For Admiral McMullen, the Muslim community "is a subtle world we don't fully—and don't always attempt to—understand. Only through a shared appreciation of the people's culture, needs and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative." (8/28/09)
Juan Cole would agree.
Note: TeachableMoment.Org includes many materials for students on the subjects discussed here. They include: "Islam and the West: An Overview and Suggestions for Study," "The U.S. & Iran," "Presidential Election 2008, The First Debate: Iran, Iraq & Afghanistan," "Opening a Dialogue: How People in Muslim Countries View the U.S. & How People in the U.S. View Muslims," "Obama's Strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan," and "Iran's Turmoil and Relations with the U.S."
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org