Juan Cole’s ‘New Arab’ Fantasies

The vain search for lasting democracy in the Middle East.

juan-coleThe “advent of a new generation” of Arabs was the overly optimistic theme for University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole’s recent lecture at the George Washington University Elliot School of International Relations.  Cole’s discussion of his new bookThe New Arabs:  How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, to an audience of about fifty, mostly Elliot School students, failed to substantiate his ongoing hopes for the so-called Arab Spring.

Elliot School professor Edward W. (Skip) Gnehm introduced Cole as a Middle East expert who is popular on television, a supposedly confidence inspiring credential. Cole focused on Tunisia, noting that this comparatively small North African country with no oil resources had received “insufficient press.”  His main concern was “youth revolutionaries,” as the Arab press termed Arab Spring regime opponents in Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

Cole began by claiming that a “relatively successful . . . transition away from authoritarianism” under the “Ben Ali clique,” who were “basically bank robbers,” had marked Tunisia’s Arab Spring.  Nonetheless, Tunisia is still “on a tightrope,” he added, as some Tunisian regions are prone to violence and Tunisia’s neighbor Libya also presents dangers.  The “Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror” previously described in Cole’s writings “have . . . dashed” the Arab Spring’s “bright hopes” in Libya and elsewhere.  Elliot School professor William Lawrence noted in a post-lecture conversation that Libya’s parliament has now fled the capital Tripoli for a Greek car ferry moored in Tobruk.  However, in December 2011, Cole stated erroneously that the “Libyan Revolution has largely succeeded, and this is a moment of celebration.”

Cole contrasted Libya with Tunisia, calling the new 2014 Tunisian constitution “very good on paper” and “very nicely worded.”  The “secularists won” in defeating attempts to codify sharia, which Cole dubiously compared to Catholic canon law, as well as a gender “complementarity” clause.  “The feminists in the room know what that means,” Cole said of the latter, before equating the “party of the Muslim religious right,” Tunisia’s Islamist, pro-jihadist Ennahda Party, initial supporter of both measures, with American conservatives.

But Cole conveniently omitted key passages of Tunisia’s constitution, including the opening traditional Islamic invocation, “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”  Other passages stipulate Tunisia’s “Islamic-Arab identity” and “civilizational affiliation to the Arab-Islamic nation.”  The preamble also supports “just liberation movements . . . against all forms of occupation and racism,” whose “forefront . . . is the Palestinian liberation movement.”  Article 1, which “cannot be amended,” further proclaims that Tunisia’s “religion is Islam” while Article 6 denotes state duty “to protect the sacred.”

Tunisia’s regionally unique “broad spectrum of politics” includes “militant” secularists, even though Ennahda won a thirty-seven percent plurality in the October 23, 2011 constitutional assembly elections, Cole observed.  “People will say things in Tunisia that if you said them in Cairo you certainly would be killed” by some Muslim vigilante, he noted.  Yet even Tunisia “pushing the boundaries,” erroneously compared by Cole with American history, has its limits.  A television broadcast of Persepolis depicting God as an old man brought a blasphemy conviction, he warned.

Cole contrasted his book’s focus on “secular, leftist movements” with what he called the media’s obsession with the “Arab world—Muslim barbarians,” but audience questions prompted him to address the role of Islam.  “I can’t deny that religious themes are very important in politics” in Iraq now, Cole conceded.  Yet Shiites and Sunnis killing each other over theology “just doesn’t seem to me . . . the way the world works,” he incorrectly concluded.

Cole praised the Middle East’s “new political generation,” noting that, according to polls, it’s “significantly less religiously observant” than previous generations.  He warned, however, that democracy is “not necessarily . . . breaking out.” Elaborating on his Arab variant of the secularization thesis (refuted throughout history), he added that countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya had urbanized in past decades.

“At this point in the American Revolution, the British still had Staten Island,” was Cole’s ahistorical Middle East/America comparison.  Presidential term limits in Egypt’s new constitution, for example, show that “things are changing a little bit.”  Events are “still changing . . . fluid,” and it’s “too early to call” on renaming the Arab Spring the “Islamic Winter.”

Despite Cole’s wishful thinking and strained comparisons of Arab upheaval with American political history, the Middle East’s road to liberty under law will remain rocky.  Small, atypically secular Tunisia’s narrow democratic success does not justify Cole’s optimism that the Middle East will develop open societies freed from Islamic atavism.  While the Shiite-Sunni sectarian strife Cole consistently downplays ravages Iraq, Syria, and beyond, jihadists hail from Saudi Arabia, other urbanized parts of the Middle East, and the West.  As with Arab Spring Libya, Cole will certainly err again.

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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