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Juan Cole’s recent lecture at Auburn University in Alabama was a jarring reminder of the importance of pursuing accountability from our academics. Speaking in the Haley Center’s primary auditorium to a room overflowing with students and a smattering of aging hippies, Cole provided an hour-long lecture on America’s relationship with the Middle East. While the seating arrangement was not uncomfortable, the lighting and the acoustics left something to be desired.
The overarching theme of the lecture was that the United States, specifically the Bush administration, was to blame for our problems with the Muslim World. Speaking in the “deep south,” Cole’s message was apparently tailored to an audience that undoubtedly was more conservative than those he normally faces. He couched his more extreme views in a nuanced, casual vocabulary that nevertheless failed to obfuscate them.
Calling his new book, Engaging the Muslim World, a “critique of the approach to the Middle East and Muslim World more broadly adopted in the first eight years of the twenty-first Century,” Cole unveiled from the very first moments his anti-American biases and lack of interest in historical context. He would have us all believe that our problems began with the Bush administration and that only a “small fringe terrorist group” posed a threat to the United States. Never mind the record of Islamic terrorist attacks that had plagued the West for the preceding three decades or the pernicious actions of rogue states like Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya: American bullying is the problem and Juan Cole’s way of thinking is the solution.
While Cole seemed eager to stress his expert credentials through repeated exhortations of his education and travels, his haphazard sophistry belied his efforts and revealed his poor judgment. No moment better illustrated this than when Cole discussed the views of an unnamed Turkish friend and stressed that, “from a Turkish point of view, Bush looked like a kind of Bonaparte.” Anecdotally, citing the opinion of a single Turk as evidence of how a nation of 76 million thinks certainly makes for a good quote, but it is not a substitute for sound academic research.
Cole repeated this pattern throughout his lecture, citing statistics and numbers while providing no specific source for his figures. While not an uncommon practice, the manner in which Cole uttered his figures was strikingly vague. He consistently stated “they did a study” and almost always failed to provide the audience an answer as to whom “they” referred.
In one instance, he claimed that 80 percent of Saudis thought their number one priority was fighting terrorism. “About ten percent of Saudis said they thought well of Al-Qaeda, which is a little bit alarming. And then they asked them what were their priorities and 80 percent of them said fighting terrorism. That tells me that they don’t really support Al-Qaeda.” The obvious weakness with this point is that the definition of terrorism for a self-proclaimed supporter of Al-Qaeda is likely to be quite different than for your average American citizen.
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