Juan Cole's Totalitarian Odyssey

Easy on Islamists, rough on democracies.

Few professors in the controversial world of Middle East studies boast more about their own notoriety than Juan Cole, a man who believes the consistent criticism of his public positions to be a sign of distinction. Yale University’s decision not to hire him for an endowed chair five years ago due to insufficient scholarship led him to publicly charge that George W. Bush and the CIA torpedoed his candidacy. When organizations such as Campus Watch publicize Cole’s outlandish commentary, he cries “censorship” and labels them “McCarthyite.”

His latest lecture at New York University—a collaboration with Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-American assistant professor of Arab culture and politics at NYU—dealt with Iran’s response to the “Arab Spring.” In a packed room of over 100 mostly Iranian and Arab-American students, Cole analyzed the Islamic Republic of Iran from a “classical realist” perspective. If one didn’t know any better, one would have departed the lecture believing that Iran justifiably protects its own interests; that America is a malignant and aggressive force and Israel its trigger-happy satellite; that Turkey’s Islamist Freedom and Development Party (AKP) is headed by a practical and liberal Prime Minister Erdogan who promotes “Middle Eastern multiculturalism”; and that a moderate Islamist party in Tunisia called Ennahda does the same.

Cole’s lecture bounced around the Middle East and North Africa, hardly sticking to one topic for more than a few minutes. His dispassionate professorial tone evinced few of the biases so clear in his intemperate blog Informed Comment. Yet his skewed view of the region was nevertheless obvious. He displayed a general tolerance for politically hostile sentiments toward America and Israel in the Arab world, spoke with astonishing credulity regarding Islamists and their goals, and argued that America and its allies are bullies and manipulators.

Amid an analysis loaded with sectarian distinctions between Sunni and Shiite, Cole pointed to an area of agreement between the two: support for Iran’s aggressive stance toward Israel. It is no secret that religious divisions hardly dissuade run-of-the-mill Arab anti-Semites from supporting any entity which promises to “wipe the Zionist entity out of the pages of time”—an Ahmadinejad quote, which, incidentally, Cole falsely claims to be mistranslated and not in the least genocidal. But describing, as did Cole, the Iranian regime’s bellicose threats merely as “a stand on the Palestine issue” speaks volumes.

Such apologetics are deeply troubling from a man who regularly uses terms such as “Zionofascism” in referring to Israel’s right to exist. Whither the outrage in the following analysis, taken directly from his lecture:

[T]he Islamic Revolution was an attempt to create a new paradigm for governance in the region, which was neither the traditional monarchy nor the officers’  regimes or postcolonial one-party states that were so prominent in the Middle East. It combines in itself an elective branch of government with Montesquieu’s spirit of laws, executive-legislative-judiciary, but at the same time incorporates into itself a set of institutions that are intended to be reflective of Iranian and Shiite sympathies.

The use of a principal figure of the French Enlightenment to bolster the legitimacy of the Islamic Revolution is typical of Cole’s efforts to whitewash radical Islamists. This is a particularly egregious instance, in that Montesquieu is well known for advocating the separation of powers to prevent tyranny, which is precisely what exists in Iran.

Cole described America and Israel as imperialistic powers threatening the sovereignty of other countries. Israel, he claimed, will probably tone down its—ostensibly typical— aggressive behavior and refrain from attacking a nuclear Iran because of instability in Egypt:

[Y]ou don’t have a Hosni Mubarak or Omar Suleiman there to support the Israeli position. Now to look for trouble, to me, seems very unlikely, either from Israelis or Americans.

Similarly, discussing the new warming of Iranian-Egyptian relations, Cole noted that:

[T]his is Washington and Tel Aviv’s worst nightmare. I assume Egypt has gone from the column of supporters of the Washington and Israeli line, to . . . playing footsy with the Iranians. And the Iranians see this and they can see that one of the outcomes of the Arab Spring is that those countries that were close to the West before are now adopting a more independent foreign policy.

Leaving aside that Tel Aviv is not Israel’s capital and that the Israeli government resides in Jerusalem, Cole consistently described America and Israel as powers demanding adherence to a party line, while Iran merely benefits from Egypt adopting a “more independent” stance.  Throughout the lecture, such negative phrasing was always associated with an American interest and the positive with an Iranian one.

He later referred to Shiites who supported Musa Sadr—the Lebanese founder of the Amal party, a Shiite Islamist entity that laid the foundations for the development of Hezbollah—as “activist Shiites.” (Cole has long been an apologist for Iranian former president Muhammad Khatami, who is married to Sadr’s niece.) No one in his lexicon is an “extremist”  unless they happen to be American conservatives, “Likudniks,”  or supporters of any military intervention he opposes.

Sinan Antoon chimed in toward the end of the lecture to express disagreement with Cole’s known support for American intervention in Libya. He also seemed troubled by any Arab or Muslim nation that might approve of America’s actions:

[The] Iranian regime are not fans of Qaddafi . . . but are really troubled, as are many leftists all over the world, by this cheering for the NATO intervention, which should be seen in its proper context as an intervention on the part of the counterrevolutionary forces of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to contain the so-called Arab Spring and of course to ensure their own logistical interests on the ground. And I know I was surprised, too, that the Libyans are waving U.S. flags, but I think and hope that in the coming months—once all the documents come out and they realize that until the last second France and Britain and precisely the U.S. were firmly behind Qaddafi—these flags are going to disappear.

Antoon’s anti-U.S. cheerleading was met with applause from the audience.

In the question and answer period following the lecture, the first questioner asked about Turkey’s Islamist ruling party, the AKP, to which Cole responded with clichés about Islamist “multiculturalism.” One wonders how many persecuted Turkish Kurds or Greeks the professor has spoken to about “multiculturalism”  in Turkey. Noting that Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party—the winner of recent elections—takes cues from Turkey’s AKP in seeking a similar “moderate Islamist” model, Cole reassured the questioner, who correctly noted that Turkey has moved far from secularism, that:

• [T]hey want to spread the Turkish model. They think this is the right mix of things; they think it should be a relatively secular constitution. They’re not interested in promoting Sharia, and on the other hand, they think you should have a kind of Middle Eastern multiculturalism.

Yet Cole had earlier noted recent attempts by Erdogan’s party to legislate criminal punishments for adultery.

He described Iran’s government as modeled on Montesquieu; Israel as an aggressor willing, but unable, to strike; America as a cynical and domineering political actor; and Turkish and Tunisian Islamist parties as “relatively secular”  and “multicultural.” This is a remarkably inaccurate and ahistorical portrait of a region in which radical Islam is on the rise. But why should the author of a blog titled Informed Comment get hung up on facts?


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