Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, produces a steady stream of writings that downplays the threat radical Islam poses to America and the West. His opinions are at odds with the beliefs of most Americans. Now, through a project designed to foster an understanding of America in the Arab world, he appears to be at odds with himself.
Cole is one of the most politically driven Middle East studies professors in the U.S. From his perch in Ann Arbor, he tried to explain away Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats to "wipe Israel off the map" by claiming - inaccurately -- that it was a mistranslation. He has also attempted to whitewash Americans' views of the Saudis and their radical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism. Last year, in a statement that further soiled his academic reputation, he compared Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In spite of this record, however, Cole has embarked on a laudatory project that could, in effect, repair some of the harm wrought by his earlier writings.
Together with several University of Michigan colleagues, including Near Eastern Studies professors Michael Bonner, Raji Rammuny, and Marcia Inhorn -- who has since moved on to Yale and found herself under fire -- Cole created a non-profit called the Global Americana Institute (GAI).
The project is surprisingly patriotic. GAI is designed to encourage a better understanding of the American political system in the Arabic-speaking world through the translation of key American political works into Arabic. If successful, it could help America win the "battle for hearts and minds" -- the ongoing effort to foster an appreciation for democracy and a rejection of radicalism in the Muslim world.
According to its website, GAI began with a "selected set of passages and essays by Thomas Jefferson on constitutional and governmental issues such as freedom of religion, the separation of powers, inalienable rights, the sovereignty of the people, and so forth."
GAI, according to the site, also intends to "have all the founding fathers translated -- Madison, Franklin, Washington, Paine, and so on." It also seeks to produce Arabic translations of the "major speeches and letters of Martin Luther King or of the works of Susan B. Anthony," and to even translate a "good solid book" about the history of the American Jewish community.
Cole's group asks for contributions to fund qualified Arab translators and to disseminate these works around the Arab world, mostly in paperback. This is a critically important task. Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf and the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion currently rank among the bestsellers at bookstores and street vendors throughout Arabic-speaking lands. GAI could help change that.
From this laudatory start, however, Cole's non-profit takes a potentially dangerous turn. The GAI website says that if it finds enough funding, it also seeks to "subsidize courses on American studies at Arab universities or even to endow some chairs." Are Cole (president and treasurer), Inhorn (secretary), and the other professors of Middle Eastern studies on the GAI board eyeing new pulpits? If Cole delivered the same message to Arab students that he delivers to Americans, he would effectively undercut the good work of his nonprofit.
For the near term, the prospect of endowing a GAI chair appears slim. According to its tax filings in 2005, when GAI was founded, the nonprofit had some $3,000 in net assets. Its resources had grown to $21,000 by 2007 and just under $30,000 by 2008 -- sufficient to fund some translation projects, but far short of the amount needed to accomplish Cole's grander plans.
And that's a good thing. When he is not working to expose the Muslim world to the morality of the American democratic system, Cole continues to spew invective on his ironically named blog "Informed Comment," and advocate positions antithetical to America's interests. In recent weeks, for example, he has dismissed the dangers of a nuclear Iran under Ahmadinejad, and tried to explain why the United States should accept defeat in its war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In light of his track record, it is unclear what drove Cole to create the Global Americana Institute. This patriotic project puts him squarely at odds with himself. After all, one cannot truly embrace the messages of both Madison and the Mullahs.
Jonathan Schanzer, an adjunct scholar at Campus Watch, is deputy executive director of the Jewish Policy Center, and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave, 2008).