Juan Cole: Tells audience Bernard Lewis thinks "Middle Easterners are like play-doh"

Historians in the News

... If there are historical lessons to be learned from the Iraq debacle, Juan Cole's new book "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" may be a good place to start. Cole, a well-respected scholar of Middle East history and author of "Informed Comment", a widely-read blog that covers politics of the region, describes Napoleon Bonaparte's military misadventure in Egypt in 1798 and the Bush administration's Iraq war as historical bookends on modern imperialism in the Middle East.

In a Friday lecture at the New America Foundation, an eclectic Washington-based think-tank of the self-described "radical centre", Cole discussed his most recent work, offered some lessons from past Western incursions in the region and the fallacious logic that justified those interventions, as well as the political realities that may ultimately precipitate a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

"[Bernard] Lewis seems to think that Middle Easterners are like play-doh, but they are not -- they talk back," said Cole, referring to the soft modeling compound made in bright colors and marketed for children. "There are real people living in Iraq, with real aspirations."

In Cole's view, the Bush administration's rhetoric of "liberating Iraq" from the clutches of a tyrannical leader with a hankering for weapons of mass destruction can't mask its long-term neo-colonial ambitions. Like Napoleon, Bush has a tendency to believe his own propaganda. Both invasions deployed rhetoric of liberation. Like the French general, Bush had a desire to create a "Greater Middle East", only to face an insurgency that viewed the foreign presence as an occupation, not liberation.

The idea that Bush's war would somehow bequeath a democratic polity in Iraq doesn't add up in the final analysis either. As Cole observes, Bush "willy-nilly was pushed into holding elections early," which resulted in the ascendance of Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a Shiite political body led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and supported by the U.S.'s regional foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Two hundred years earlier, Napoleon appointed a group of Sunni scholars from Cairo's Al-Azhar University to "rule" on behalf of Egypt's "newly liberated" population. In both examples, a military occupation by ostensibly "democratic republics" -- who wanted to craft occupied lands in their own image -- ended up with Islamic republics.

And if Napoleon failed in his attempts to make Egypt a lucrative colony of the French Republic, why would Bush have any easier of a time turning Iraq into a "beacon of democracy" in the Middle East?

"The age of colonialism passed for very sociological reasons. Populations can mobilise in very effective ways and will not be crushed," said Cole. "The idea that America can just go in to shape a country is a very 19th century idea." ...

comments powered by Disqus