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.
Among the Arabist orthodoxies to which Cole subscribes is the view that external powers are responsible for the Middle East's endemic malaise. The West is blamed for (allegedly) carving the defunct Ottoman Empire into artificial entities, in accordance with its imperial interests and with complete disregard for the yearning of the indigenous peoples for political unity. Many of the problems of contemporary Arab societies are also ascribed to the legacy of Western colonialism. For instance, in an article titled "why we can blame 20th century imperialism for many of our 21st century problems," Cole identified "the dead hand of Western European colonialism" behind some of the Middle East's major conflicts. "Imperialism depended on dominating, humiliating and exploiting others, and on drawing artificial boundaries for European strategic purposes," he argues, adding elsewhere that "the Middle East suffers from having small countries imposed by Western colonialism." These standard assertions not only ignore the active role played by local leaders in the reshaping of their region after World War I, they also overlook the fact that many Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, to mention but a few) are substantially larger than the country that is often held culpable for their ills: Great Britain.
There has been no real discussion of the veracity of this blame-the-West hypothesis since it was spelled out in the mid-'30s, and the handful of scholars who dared to broach the subject were viciously attacked and marginalized. The eminent British historian Elie Kedourie was even denied a doctorate at Oxford University for having refused to revise his dissertation to conform with this dogma. When Kedourie later led the assault on the blame-the-West thesis, the denizens of Middle East studies shunned him.
Yet it is the inculcation of this misguided dogma in generations of students that prevented the anticipation of the September 11 attacks and has subsequently held back a correct prognosis of their root causes. Blaming the victim for its misfortune, most Arabists portray September 11 as a response to an arrogant and self-serving U.S. foreign policy by a fringe extremist group whose violent interpretation of Islam has little to do with the actual spirit and teachings of this religion. Ignoring centuries of Islamic jihads against those deemed infidels and the deeply illiberal elements of Islam, Cole claims, "Radical Islamism was first provoked to terrorism in Egypt precisely by the arrogance of British power there, beginning a genealogy of violence that leads through Ayman al-Zawahiri directly to September 11, 2001." Were U.S. policy to become more attuned to Muslim sensibilities, Cole and his fellow Arabists imply, Islamic militants would be discredited and the ticking bomb, so to speak, would be defused.
Like many of those who inhabit Middle East studies departments, Cole believes that the U.S. policy that most inflames Muslims is support for Israel. He writes that "knee-jerk US support for Israeli expansionism is at the root of anti-Americanism in the Arab world." While Cole pays the customary lip service on his blog to Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders (and says it would be worth American lives to defend Tel Aviv), he also makes clear that he thinks the Middle East would have been better off without the Jewish state. Discounting altogether the millenarian Jewish attachment to Palestine, so as to misrepresent Israel's creation as an ordinary colonialist project, he claims in one post that it would have been preferable for the British to have simply accepted Jewish refugees "rather than saddling a small, poor peasant country with 500,000 immigrants hungry to make the place their own." He goes on to perversely blame Israel for Arab militarism, contending that "the rise of Israel put pressure on Arab budgets, when a different sort of neighbour might have allowed them to invest the money in more fruitful areas than the military."
Cole glibly claims, "[T]o any extent that contemporary Muslims have a problem with Jews, it is largely driven by what they see as injustices done by Zionists to the Palestinians." Such ahistorical analysis ignores a deep anti-Jewish bigotry that dates to Islam's earliest days and reflects the prophet Muhammad's outrage over the rejection of his religious message by the contemporary Jewish community. To his credit, Cole criticized the Egyptian government's 2002 decision to air a TV serial based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a virulent anti-Semitic tract fabricated by the Russian secret police at the turn of the twentieth century that alleges an organized Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination. But the line of argument he uses repeats the same ahistorical belief that the Protocols are a recent alien import to Arab societies that "had no particular resonances in the Muslim world (outside a few radical Muslim cliques) until the past couple of decades."
Cole should know better than that. The Protocols have been a staple of Arab-Muslim anti-Semitism since the early twentieth century, published in numerous editions and in several different translations, including one by the brother of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. (Nasser himself would recommend the pamphlet as a useful guide to the "Jewish mind," as would his successor, Anwar Sadat, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Yasir Arafat, among many others.) Less than a year after their airing on Egyptian television, the Protocols were saliently displayed alongside a Torah scroll in an exhibition at the newly built Alexandria library.
Nor are the Protocols the only popular anti-Semitic import in the Muslim-Arab world. The "blood libel"--the medieval Christian fabrication that claimed Jews use gentile blood, and particularly the blood of children, for ritual purposes--was imported to the Ottoman Empire as early as the fifteenth century (and not hundreds of years later, as Cole asserts), and it was quickly internalized in the Muslim imagination, where it remains firmly implanted to this day. The libel surfaced numerous times during the pre-Zionist nineteenth century across the Muslim World, from Aleppo to Damascus to Antioch. As late as October 2000, the largest Egyptian government daily, Al Ahram, which is probably the world's foremost Arabic-language newspaper, published an almost full-page article titled "jewish matzah is made of arab blood."
Cole may express offense at the Protocols, but their obsession with the supposed international influence of "world Zionism" resonates powerfully in his own writings. How else can one describe his depiction of U.S. foreign policy as controlled by a ruthless Zionist cabal implanted at the highest echelons of the Bush administration and employing "sneaky methods of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of intelligence" to promote its goals? And what of Cole's claim that the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, in alliance with the Christian Right, represents a sinister force controlling congressional decisions on policy toward Israel? "The Founding Fathers of the United States deeply feared that a foreign government might gain this level of control over a branch of the United States government, and their fears have been vindicated," Cole laments.
The chairman and CEO of this imaginary Zionist cabal is Israeli premier and Likud leader Ariel Sharon, whom Cole despises--so much so that he cannot bring himself to refer to Sharon without resorting to the vilest invectives. He is the butcher of Beirut, a mafia don, war criminal, land grabber, starver of children, and so on. "Couldn't he shut his enormous pie hole[?]" Cole wonders of Sharon. "Apparently [Bush] has fallen for a line from the neo-cons in his administration that they can deliver the Jewish vote to him in 2004 if only he kisses Sharon's ass," he writes in another post. And all this comes from a historian priding himself on his dispassionate and evenhanded approach.
Cole is of course not the first nor the last to argue that U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked by the Jewish state (one recalls Pat Buchanan's description of Congress as Israel's "amen corner"). But, while most anti-Israel (indeed, anti-Jewish) critics tend to hide behind the more neutral term "neocons," Cole does not shy from labeling prominent Jewish members of the Bush administration (or, for that matter, anyone not overtly hateful of Sharon) as "Likudniks."
Conscious of the racist overtones of his criticism, Cole attempts to present it as purely businesslike. "Some have attempted to argue that the very term `Neoconservative' is a code word for derogatory attitudes toward Jews," he writes. "This argument is mere special pleading and a playing of the race card, however, insofar as only a tiny percentage of American Jews are Neoconservatives, and only a tiny percentage of Neoconservatives are Jews." True enough. But then why the substitution of the term Likudniks for neocons? And why is it that the Likudniks who most obsess Cole all have names like Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, Adelman, Ledeen, Gaffney, Wurmser, Pipes, Rubin, or Kristol?
How are the American Likudniks going to use their overwhelming prowess? To embroil the United States in "serial wars with Iraq, Iran, Syria, N. Korea, and apparently ultimately China." "The war in Iraq is scary for many reasons," Cole wrote on March 6, 2003. "But what is really scary is that many of the hawks in the Bush administration say, `after Baghdad, Beijing.'"
In pursuing these outlandish ideas, the Washington Likudniks are following in the footsteps of their warlike spiritual mentor and political ally, Sharon, whose 1982 invasion of Lebanon Cole sees echoed in the Iraq war. "Sharon just wanted to reshape Lebanese politics, the way his disciples in the Bush administration now want to reshape Iraqi politics," he wrote shortly before the outbreak of hostilities. "We'll see if the American Likudniks have more luck than Sharon himself did." But, whether or not Iraq's politics will be successfully reshaped, the real goal of "Wolfowitz's adventure in Iraq" is "to defang Iraq as a favor to Ariel Sharon."
Cole provides no proof whatsoever for this conspiratorial thinking--there is none. During Saddam's 25 years in power, Iraq killed not a single Israeli. Nor has a single American soldier ever been sent to fight on Israel's behalf. It is therefore complete nonsense to suggest that the United States would go to war to defend Israel, rather than its own national security.
But, in Cole's fertile imagination, there are no limits to Sharon's domination of the White House. "[I]f Sharon and AIPAC decide that they need the US government to take military action against Iran," he ominously prophesied, "it is likely that the US government will do so." On another occasion, he speculated that the neocons had manipulated American forces in Iraq to try to capture the militant Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr "because he had objected so loudly to Sharon's murder of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the clerical leader of the Hamas Party." If you believe this, you'll believe anything. But perhaps that's what Cole has been banking on all along.
Efraim Karsh is the head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London.