Cole on Engaging the Muslim World:
An overview for teachers
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)."
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.
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
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,
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)
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."
Cole's perspective, "These militant attitudes and the constant demonization
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."
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
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
on Afghanistan and Pakistan
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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
I can't see Afghanistan as a threat to U.S. security."
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."
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
but by engineers trained in the West. Even in their heyday in the
1990s, the Taliban were seldom directly involved in committing international terrorism."
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
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."
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.
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
anxiety about Pakistan," Cole argues, "derives from Westerners
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.
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."
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.
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
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
is no evidence that it has a nuclear weapons program, though [Iran] is not being
entirely transparent to UN inspectors."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
.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."
the Muslim world
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.
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."
between Interpol, the FBI, and security agencies in the Muslim world to counter
violent radical groups.
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.
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.
Iran's energy independence and assuring the government that the United States
will not attempt to overthrow it."
a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "the highest priority"
of the Obama administration
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."
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
.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
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)
Cole would agree.
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."
lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
your comments. Please email them to: email@example.com.