Juan Cole: The Historian as Blogger

Historians in the News

Curt Guyette, in Metro Times (Detroit) (Aug. 25, 2004):

Like the history that he teaches, Juan Cole’s emergence as a 21st century media phenomenon is the product of convergence. Geopolitics and technology and professional pursuits have combined to transform a once-obscure university professor into an analyst hundreds of thousands of people are turning to as an alternative source of information regarding the war in Iraq.

There was a time not long ago when the opinion pieces Cole submitted to magazines and newspapers would go unpublished. No one had much interest in the insights being offered by this University of Michigan history professor who made study of the Middle East and its religions his specialty.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, America’s subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the evolution of the Internet have changed all that. Now, instead of specialized journals and books little noticed outside the margins of academia, Cole’s writings can be found on the pages of The Guardian, San Jose Mercury News, and The Nation, and in Web publications such as Salon. He’s featured frequently in the electronic media, appearing on CNN, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and National Public Radio.

His Web log, or blog, Informed Comment (juancole.com), has received as many as 250,000 hits a month; last week, the online journal Slate cited it as “a must-read for those interested in the Middle East.” The phone at his Ann Arbor home rings constantly with journalists seeking his expertise. And in April, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Juan Cole and his opinions on Iraq have become a hot commodity. On his blog, he draws information daily from a variety of sources, collecting disparate pieces of a complicated puzzle and placing them together to form a coherent picture.

A 51-year-old specialist in Islamic studies who has “lived all over the Muslim world,” Cole began getting peppered with questions from colleagues on various e-mail lists he subscribed to following Sept. 11. As the author of more than a half-dozen books about Middle Eastern religious sects and the region’s social and political movements, he brought a perspective few Westerners could match.

“Because I was familiar with the terrain from which al Qaeda developed,” he says, “people would ask questions about what was going on and I would try to answer them. My answers were thought well of by my colleagues. My responses would get forwarded very widely. Frankly, I began getting fan mail from places like Denmark. Obviously, there was a lot of interest in what I had to say. People were trying to make sense of the situation.”

Cole relates his trajectory in a matter-of-fact way, with no trace of a braggart in his tone.

As Cole points out, e-mails, by nature, are “ephemeral. You send them and they are gone.” And they have a relatively narrow audience.

By the winter of 2001-02, however, blogging as a phenomenon was beginning to take off, and Cole, who describes himself as “very wired,” was there at the start, ready to ride that technological wave as it began to form.

It was, at that point, a “relatively minor sort of thing,” he explains, nothing more than a hobby. The Iraq war came in the spring of 2003, and he began focusing attention on that. Still, his blog remained relatively obscure. That all changed the following year when, following the capture of Saddam, a “huge pilgrimage from Baghdad to the holy city of Karbala took place. There were thousands and thousands of people flagellating themselves and chanting, and the American media and the American public suddenly said, ‘Who are these people?’”

With one of his specialties being the modern history of Shiite Islam, Cole could answer those questions. Because of his presence on the Internet, journalists, for the first time, began to take notice and turned to him and his Web page as a resource.

A flurry of media appearances occurred, and his blog began gaining wider notice. The site, which would get just a few hundred hits each month when first begun, steadily attracted more readers.

Early on in the war, when optimism ran rampant, Cole saw much reason for concern. Able to read several Middle Eastern languages, he was able to monitor news accounts and opinion pieces from the region online, which, along with his previous studies, provided a depth and breadth of insight few others could match.

“This was something I could not have been able to do in 1990, or even 1995,” says Cole about the availability of Middle Eastern news reports on the Internet. “I could get a level of texture and detail that you could never get from the Western press.”

In fact, he contends, from his desk in Ann Arbor he can obtain a “more thorough review of what is going on in Iraq than most observers on the ground.”

By the summer of 2003, Cole had gained a reputation as a “dark pessimist” at a time when many observers were still expecting victorious troops to be greeted with nothing more dangerous than flower bouquets being lobbed at them.

“As time went on, though, I began getting the reputation of being remarkably prescient,” he says....

He worries that offering pointed commentary could damage his academic credibility, but at this point he feels a moral obligation to point out “the very bad foreign policy mistakes” the United States continues to commit.

“The fate of my country is in the balance,” says Cole. “That is more important than objectivity.”

Cole gives the American media mixed marks for its coverage of the war....

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