Juan Cole: Peddling Conventional Arabist Wisdom?

Historians in the News

Efraim Karsh, in the New Republic (4-25-05):

[Efraim Karsh is the head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London.]

Before September 11, 2001, Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, enjoyed anonymity outside his professional circle. He was a leading figure in the Middle East Studies Association of North America (mesa), editing for five years its flagship publication, The International Journal of Middle East Studies. (In 2004, he was elected the Association's incoming president.) But his research on certain esoteric aspects of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Middle East (e.g., the genesis of the Baha'i faith) was unlikely to bring him attention in the field and offered little hope of public acclaim. Then came September 11. When mesa came under intense criticism after the terrorist attacks for having failed to educate generations of students in the realities of the Middle East, Cole was livid. Finding it difficult to place opinion pieces in the mainstream press that could present reality as he saw it, he had the prescience to realize the immense opportunities that an online diary offered.

Cole started his blog, which he called Informed Comment and subtitled Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion, in April 2002. It quickly established itself as a popular source of information on the Middle East, attracting a reported 200,000 page-views per month. Informed Comment also caught the eye of journalists, earning Cole dozens of mentions in the country's top dailies and newsweeklies, an hour-long appearance on NPR's "Fresh Air," and 14 appearances on the "NewsHour" with Jim Lehrer. The Village Voice advised its readers, "If you're not already visiting Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog (juancole.com) on a daily basis, now's the time to get in the habit," while L.A. Weekly called Cole's blog "a must-read for anyone seriously interested in Iraq." In 2003, Informed Comment won the 2003 Koufax Award for best expert blog, and, last year, Cole was even asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the fissures within Iraqi society and his ideas for creating a stable Iraqi government.

The appeal of Cole's blog is easy to see. It is highly readable, stripped of the jargon common to other Middle East academic researchers. And Cole provides a wealth of information on the Sisyphean U.S. effort to reconstruct Iraq (a country that Cole himself has never visited) and the violent opposition to this endeavor, at times from Arabic newspapers not normally available to Western readers (Cole, unlike many journalists--and even some Middle East experts--reads Arabic). What's more, Cole has called himself "an outspoken hawk in the war on terror," and his views on the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war, both of which he supported (while also voicing concerns about U.S. unilateralism), seem to bolster his credibility, reassuring readers that he doesn't suffer from the knee-jerk anti-Americanism found in many Middle East studies departments.

But, unfortunately, Cole suffers from many other common Arabist misconceptions that deeply prejudice and compromise his writing. Having done hardly any independent research on the twentieth-century Middle East, Cole's analysis of this era is essentially derivative, echoing the conventional wisdom among Arabists and Orientalists regarding Islamic and Arab history, the creation of the modern Middle East in the wake of World War I, and its relations with the outside world. Worse, Cole's discussion of U.S. foreign policy frequently veers toward conspiratorial anti-Semitism. This is hardly the "informed" commentary Cole claims it to be. ...

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