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.
Cole stressed that his mostly youthful audience should question the reliability of people who claim to speak for the entire Muslim world, yet apparently expected the audience to suspend such skepticism when he proceeded to do just that. Cole suggested that the Muslim view of the U.S. and its struggle with terrorism was due to the fact that “the United States is a superpower and is always sticking its nose in other people’s business.” Yet this fails to explain why Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Israel, Thailand, and many other countries struggle with Islamic terrorism.
The most inconsistent portion of Cole’s lecture stemmed from his praise of Saudi Arabia and Algeria for combating Islamic extremists, while lambasting the United States’ efforts to do the same in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In this process, there were predictable jabs at public figures like Rudy Giuliani and Charles Krauthammer. Cole insinuated that Giuliani had no standing to use the term “Islamic fascists” because he was an Italian-American, a slander of an entire ethnic group by one claiming to defend Muslims against such low blows. Shortly thereafter Cole again substituted slipshod reasoning for cogent analysis by suggesting that Krauthammer probably doesn’t even know a Muslim and therefore is not credible on Middle East issues.
No Juan Cole lecture would be complete without his usual radical statements or subtle anti-Semitic jabs. Cole labeled unwise the turning of the Abu Ghraib detention facility into “the largest U.S. government factory of pornography” and would have his audience believe the incident occurred from executive fiat as opposed to the deplorable behavior of a few rogue soldiers. In an oddly disjointed moment, Cole argued the term “Islamofascist” was offensive to Muslims and that using phrases like “Islamic terrorism” was as inappropriate as including “Jewish gangster” activity in Las Vegas in Judaic studies. One wonders how the two are similar since Jewish criminals do not commit crimes in the name of Judaism, yet radical Islamic terrorists routinely murder and maim in the name of Islam.
When the lecture ended, there was a mad rush to exit the room. Only a handful of individuals remained for the question and answer period, suggesting that a significant number of students attended the event for extra credit or class requirements. The badly-attended Q&A period nonetheless produced a few stunning rejoinders from Cole, not the least of which was his supposition that Iranian despot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s penchant for radical statements is as insignificant as “birther” claims that President Obama was not born in Hawaii. Cole did not take the opportunity to mention his earlier protest that Ahmadinejad’s words were mistranslated regarding the infamous threat to “wipe Israel off the map,” and that the Iranian president “was not making a threat.”
Cole was elitist, detached, and unconvincing. His audience was young and polite, but hardly enthused. His claims reveal him to be precisely what he seeks to conceal—a man desperately seeking affirmation for his extreme views.