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It's hard to be an optimist today, but Juan Cole is

Historians in the News
tags: Middle East, Israel, Hamas, Gaza



Irshad Manji, the author of “Allah, Liberty and Love,” directs the Moral Courage Project at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

It isn’t easy to track down a positive word about the Middle East these days. Then again, Juan Cole is not your typical observer. A professor of history at the University of Michigan, he is also a prolific and popular blogger on current affairs. An American, he spent part of his childhood in France and Ethiopia. A left-leaning idealist, he comes across as far more optimistic than the dour Occupy crowd. A cosmopolitan in constant touch with 20-somethings, he seems to be addressing boomers in his latest book, “The New Arabs,” which is replete with explanations that digital natives would never need. (Don’t know what the “meatspace” is? Read on.)

“The New Arabs” chronicles the heart-stirring youth revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Early on, Cole does some defying of his own. “The rise of the Internet,” he notes, “may not have been as central to these social movements as some Western press coverage assumed.”

To be sure, Cole affirms that online networks dramatically amplified the reach and resonance of protesters’ demands for state accountability. Take the iconic story of Mohamed Bouazizi. Ripped off and slapped by a government employee, the young Tunisian self-immolated in front of his local city hall, igniting the first of the uprisings. Internet buzz propagated the myth that Bouazizi had graduated from college, making an educated underclass think of him as one of their own and thus take up his cause. In fact, because of poverty, Bouazizi had not even finished high school. Nor was his name Mohamed; it was Tarek. Ah, the baptismal power of social media.

Still, the Internet is only one strand of a much broader web that Cole weaves. His is a huge challenge: to map the outbreaks of tumult that have crisscrossed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past decade. Strikes, bread shortages, lack of water, inflation, unemployment — all on top of a generational thirst for personal autonomy and political liberty. It makes for chaotic reading. Policy wonks get their fill. The rest of us need patience....

Read entire article at NYT


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