Engaging the Muslim World

Engaging the Muslim World

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been nearly two months since President Obama took his oath of office to become the 44th President of the United States. In the early stages of the campaign, Obama swept through the primaries, then into the presidency, on the basis of his antiwar message. Has he lived up to the promise?

This week marks the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. To mark the occasion, protests and marches are being called across the country to urge President Obama to speed up the withdrawal of US troops. Under Obama’s plan, troop withdrawals won’t begin until the end of 2009, up to 50,000 US troops would remain in Iraq through 2011. Obama has also not addressed whether the US will keep permanent military bases in Iraq and has made no promises to withdraw the over 100,000 private US military contractors and mercenaries stationed in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has ordered 17,000 more US troops to be deployed to fight as part of an escalation of the seven-year-old war. This comes as public support in many NATO countries for the continued occupation of Afghanistan is eroding.

In Pakistan, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the CIA and continues to carry out controversial drone attacks inside the country that have killed scores of civilians.

In Iran, Obama has extended a section of US sanctions for at least another year. The restrictions bar US companies from involvement in the Iranian oil industry and blocking trade and investment ties.

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Obama administration has continued the US government’s unwavering support for Israel. The administration recently announced it will withdraw its entire $900 million aid pledge if the pending Palestinian unity government does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. No such conditions have been imposed on Israel. This comes in the wake of Israel’s brutal three-week assault on Gaza that left over 1,400 Palestinians dead, more than 900 of them civilians.

Well, Juan Cole is a longtime analyst of US-Mideast affairs, a professor of history at University of Michigan. His blog, “Informed Comment,” receives 250,000 unique hits every month. He has just written a new book. It’s out today. It’s called Engaging the Muslim World. Juan Cole joins us here in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

JUAN COLE: Thank you so much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s nice to have you here in the studio, as opposed to talking to you out in Michigan. But let’s start off with—well, this is the week of the sixth anniversary of Iraq. What’s your assessment of where we stand, where Iraq stands?

JUAN COLE: Well, Iraq is starting to see, finally, some fairly good news. I think it’s important that the government seems to be starting to be more responsive, that the prime minister has established more security in cities like Basra or Amara. And you can see this in the results of the provincial elections, where the prime minister’s party did exceptionally well, I think, in those places where he had sent in troops and established more order. And so, this is a change from—a year ago, I wouldn’t be talking like this. It really is a better situation in some ways.

But, of course, there are so many problems. There are four million people who have been left essentially homeless, displaced—2.7 million inside the country, another very large number in Jordan and Syria. There are still very severe tensions between the Arab community and the Kurdish community over the northern oil city of Kirkuk and other territory in the north. That issue has not been resolved, by any means. And so, the country faces many problems of infrastructure. There’s not enough potable water available to people. There’s very high rates of unemployment. There’s not much foreign investment in most of the country, outside the Kurdistan region. So it is a basket case; I mean, it is a mess. But there are some slight signs of some improvement recently.

AMY GOODMAN: And the 50,000 troops that Obama says will stay through 2011, 100,000 private contractors?

JUAN COLE: Sure. Well, you know, for me, the issue is not so much the rate at which the United States withdraws from Iraq. I believe President Obama when he says he is committed to bringing the US troops out. And I think the Marines, the infantry, are going to gradually be brought out almost entirely.

But the question is, what do they leave behind? And, you know, if you had a civil war break out between the Arabs and the Kurds over Kirkuk, it could bring in Turkey, could bring in Iran, could destabilize the whole eastern Mediterranean, would have implications for the world economy, the US could get drawn back in. So I think the important thing is that Obama, before he leaves, makes some political arrangements, does some heavy-duty diplomacy with local people, tries to get some covenants amongst the groups about who gets what, as he goes out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, would you say the surge worked?

JUAN COLE: No, I think the—you know, I take nothing away from the US military. I think they tried to do their best in tamping down the really apocalyptic rates of violence that were there in places like Baghdad in early 2007. But I think the main reason for which the rate of civilian death has fallen dramatically in the past year and a half has been because the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Shiite militias against the Sunni Arab population of Baghdad succeeded. And the recent provincial elections indicate to me that Baghdad may be as little as ten or 15 percent Sunni now. It used to be 50/50 before the Americans came. So there aren’t any Sunnis around in most Shiite neighborhoods anymore to be killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, the first chapter of your book, “The Struggle for Islamic Oil: The Truth about Energy Independence.” What is the truth?

JUAN COLE: Well, you know, I like President Obama a lot, and I’m very green. I’m all in favor of alternative energies. But the physical limitations are there, and the likelihood is, by 2050, we still will get probably a majority of our energy from hydrocarbons. And this is undesirable, but there are severe limitations to what can be done. And so, the deep reserves of hydrocarbons, oil and gas, are in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, so, over time, as the shallower reserves are used or people start using their own oil, as we expect to happen in Mexico, the United States is going to be actually much more dependent on hydrocarbons in the Muslim world than it is now.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is that going to mean for each country?

JUAN COLE: Well, we’d better have good relations with them. I say, find a Muslim, make a friend. You know, the Venezuelans now are starting to try to make a pipeline to the Pacific so as to export more to China, because they want to diversify away from the United States, because they have such bad political relations with the US. If we have bad political relations with the countries of the Muslim world that are producing the hydrocarbons—you know, increasingly it’s a seller’s market—they could sell it to China or India instead, and the United States could end up really not having the energy that it needs.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Afghanistan, the US pushing a surge there—at this moment, 17,000 more soldiers in Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden goes to Brussels to meet with NATO, NATO forces—NATO countries, I should say, increasingly opposed to the Afghan war. But the US is pushing harder and trying to get support in countries that don’t want to support it, like Canada, like Britain.

JUAN COLE: Well, Canada has announced that it’s leaving in 2012. And a lot of the European publics are very much opposed to a continued military mission in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is an almost insoluble problem. And the question is, what’s the mission? You know, if you’re sending US troops there to fight, to die, we have to know what is exactly their mission. And it’s not to fight al-Qaeda. Have you seen anything for the last five years in the newspapers about US troops capturing major al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan, even fighting al-Qaeda units? I don’t see any evidence that they’re there. So what we’re fighting is Pushtuns, the neo-Taliban, which is probably—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “the neo-Taliban”?

JUAN COLE: Well, you know, the Taliban were the old Mullah Omar group that now is based in Quetta. They’re still active. But there are new groups that have emerged, some of them old warlords. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is—I talk about this in the book. This is a former US ally, a very hard-line fundamentalist who got a lion’s share of the CIA money that was given to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. He has now hooked up with Mullah Omar. He used to be an enemy of his. And his group, the Hezb-e-Islami, is actively fighting US troops in the Pushtun regions. Or you have someone like Jalaluddin Haqqani, who’s likewise an old warlord who’s now—his group is considered part of the Taliban. And then, I think you have a lot of disgruntled villagers whose, you know, poppy crops were burned or who don’t want US or NATO troops in their region, who are attacking checkpoints and soldiers and who are also getting called Taliban.

So you’ve got a complex group of insurgents, several thousand of them, who are challenging the Karzai government. And it seems to me that mainly what the US, Britain and Australia are doing in the south of the country is to shore up the government of Hamid Karzai. And if that’s the goal, that’s a tough mission. Karzai only controls 30 percent of the country. The gross domestic product of Afghanistan is only $9 billion a year. There simply aren’t the resources there to have a strong state, strong army. And if that is the goal, it’s going to take a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any sense that the goal of the Obama administration is to shore up Karzai? I mean, Biden was having dinner with him and walked out on him.

JUAN COLE: Yeah. Well, you know, Karzai is not the issue. It’s the government in Kabul. And there are going to be elections in August, which I think Obama and Biden hope Karzai will lose. But the point is to shore up the elected government that was the product of the bond process. And it obviously just isn’t that powerful a government. It doesn’t control very much of the country. But I think that is the reason that we’re there, is to fight their enemies.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece, Juan Cole, called “Obama’s Vietnam,” talking about Afghanistan. Explain.

JUAN COLE: Well, you know, Lyndon Johnson was bequeathed this police action in Vietnam, and he became very invested in it. You and I remember those days. And it was again, you know, was to shore up the South Vietnamese government, and we kept putting in troops, and you ended up with 500,000 over there. And, you know, they did search-and-destroy tactics, which alienated the population. They didn’t realize they were fighting a kind of nationalism. So, I think, in the same way, you know, there’s a danger of Obama committing so many resources to Afghanistan in the wrong way that it can turn into a major quagmire. And then, just today, a poll came out that 40 percent of Americans now are thinking this was a mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think Obama should be doing here? The same as Iraq, pulling out?

JUAN COLE: Well, again, I’m not so worried about the timetable for withdrawals; I’m worried about what they leave behind. So, you know, 80 percent of all insurgencies in modern history have been settled through negotiations of various sorts. Obviously, the people of the south of Afghanistan, there are substantial numbers of them who are not happy with the new situation. So, you know, Obama was a community organizer. What do you do as a community organizer? You go in, you ask people, “What do you need? Why are you unhappy? What can we get for you?” So he needs to do that with the Pushtuns. He needs to find out what they want and to see if there is not a peaceful way of getting it for them. And I think, you know, it’s hard to say these things at a time when the US economy is so badly damaged, but very substantial foreign aid is needed to rebuild Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the Taliban now focused in Quetta in Pakistan. What about Pakistan today? A just major march—Nawaz Sharif was going to be under house arrest. They surround his house with cars, with—to keep him in—buses, trucks, with the deflated tires. He gets out. He’s going to lead a march. And they end up reinstating the chief justice.

JUAN COLE: Yes. Well, actually, I have a chapter in the book that gives a lot of the background for that struggle between the Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party. That kind of party politics and rivalry is not new in Pakistan. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Muslim League being Nawaz Sharif. Peoples Party—

JUAN COLE: Yeah, the Muslim League and the branch of the Muslim League that follows Nawaz Sharif.

AMY GOODMAN: Peoples Party being the current president.

JUAN COLE: Yeah, it’s a kind of—the Peoples Party is kind of left of center; the Muslim League, kind of right of center. But there’s party politics, and it’s street politics. I actually think it’s fairly healthy, what happened. You know, the president overreached, and the people of Punjab let him know that he overreached. And that’s much better than, you know, under a military dictatorship like Musharraf. Things were quiet, but underneath there was all this turmoil.

And that’s a different kind of issue than the issue that’s faced in the tribal regions of the northwest of the country. That’s the one, I think, the Obama administration is really concerned about, because you have cross-border raids into Afghanistan, you have safe harbor for militants. And that’s another really tough nut to crack, because that region, as you know, is very craggy. It’s like our Southwest. And 30 percent of it is considered by the Pakistani government to be administratively inaccessible. So I don’t think that it’s going to be very easy for them to control that region.

AMY GOODMAN: And the unmanned drone attacks that are killing increasing number of civilians, that are, well, coming out of the United States, CIA-backed?

JUAN COLE: Right. Well, what the Obama administration maintains is that they are killing Arab Afghans, they’re killing volunteers who have come from places like Egypt and so forth, who are essentially al-Qaeda and who—you know, they’ll rent apartments and houses in those tribal areas from local people and engage in planning for attacks across the border into Afghanistan. And this is an area which the Pakistani government does not control. The US can’t send troops in there. And so, in order to fight these people, they’re using these unmanned drone Predators.

But, of course, it’s not a precision sort of business, and if you strike at a village, you are likely to kill locals and civilians. And the Pakistani public is starting to really, really mind. And I think in the same way that they rebelled against the president’s overreaching, there’s going to be increasing trouble with the Pakistani public if we go on infringing against their sovereignty.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back, and I want to talk to you about what you call “the Wahhabi myth” and talk about the difference between Muslim activism and Muslim radicalism, as you put it.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Our guest is Juan Cole, the internationally respected historian, blogger, professor of history at University of Michigan; his new book, Engaging the Muslim World. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole is our guest, the internationally respected historian, blogger at “Informed Comment.” His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World. Your second chapter, “Muslim Activism, Muslim Radicalism: Telling the Two Apart.”

JUAN COLE: Right. Well, you know, there’s been an increasing tendency in the United States to view the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt as somehow a terrorist organization, and it was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case, when the Bush administration came against a Muslim charity that it accused of funneling money to Hamas in Gaza. And, you know, unindicted co-conspirator doesn’t have to—nothing has to be proven; that can just be put in the document by the Justice Department.

And then, when Steny Hoyer was in Cairo a couple years ago, he was meeting parliamentarians, and the Muslim Brotherhood has eighty-eight seats in the lower house, which has about 444 members. So he met with a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, and there was a big to-do about this in Washington, and they said, well, we don’t recognize the Muslim Brotherhood, shouldn’t be meeting with them, and so forth.

Well, the Muslim Brotherhood made a pact with Anwar El Sadat back in the 1970s to give up any kind of violence, to participate in civil society, and to run in these elections that Egypt has, which, you know, are kind of Chicago-style elections and the party machine always wins. So the idea that we shouldn’t talk to the Muslim Brotherhood, you know, and then it’s accused of being the font of the radical groups and so forth—well, it is true. Radical groups have sometimes hived off from the Muslim Brotherhood, but it’s because they were dissatisfied with the Brotherhood’s decision to use peaceful means to achieve its goals.

So that’s a very different kettle of fish, the Muslim Brotherhood, from the radical groups, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya of the Blind Sheikh that was responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing or the Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri, which eventually joined al-Qaeda. And there’s a problem in the way that a lot of American pundits and politicians approach these groups, and they don’t see the difference between Muslim activism and Muslim radicalism. And it’s ironic, because some of the best allies of the Americans in the past few years have been offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. So, Karzai’s government is a government that was the Northern Alliance. One of the elements of the Northern Alliance was the Jamiat-e Islami, which was the Afghan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Iraqi Islamic Party in Iraq of Tariq al-Hashimi, the vice president, which has been cooperative with the United States, is the current incarnation of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood. So, you know, it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Where does Saudi Arabia fit into this picture?

JUAN COLE: Well, Saudi Arabia is, again, a mixed bag. It is, more or less, an ally of the United States. It has often offered US—the US facilities and help of various sorts. On the other hand, its state ideology of Wahhabi Islam is a very sort of idiosyncratic and rigid form of Islam. It’s, by the way, not common in the rest of the Muslim world. It is a Saudi and, to some extent, Qatari phenomenon.

But the Saudi system is very repressive. You know, there’s a—some people call it a gender apartheid, with regard to women. They’re not allowed to drive. They can become professionals, but only to service other women. Political dissent is not allowed. And so, it is a very authoritarian regime. And the US, rightly, you know, pressures it to open up, I think. But there’s a difference between having an authoritarian regime, having social customs that we perhaps disapprove of, and being an enemy. And I think that that distinction has to be underlined.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman. Last week, he rescinded his acceptance to head the National Intelligence Council after an intense lobbying campaign by lawmakers and lobbyists who support Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Freeman has years of diplomatic experience, stints as the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and assistant secretary of defense. He’s also known for criticizing the decisive US military, economic and diplomatic support that allows Israel to maintain the occupation. This is an excerpt of an interview that Freeman did on CNN, where he said he was targeted for his opinions.

    CHARLES FREEMAN: I don’t think that I’ve been in any respect excessively or unreasonably critical of Israel. I think I have been critical of Israeli policy. And the atmosphere is such in this country now that, whereas Israelis in Israel routinely criticize policies they think may prove to be suicidal for their country, those who criticize the same policies here for the same reasons are subject to political reprisal.


AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, can you respond? And what happened, the demise of Chas Freeman?

JUAN COLE: Well, tell me about it. You know, there is a ban on politicians in the United States being critical of Israeli policy. And if you have anything serious to do with the US Congress, in particular, it’s not allowed to be critical, and you’ll have a lot of enemies who will try to shoot you down, try to get you unelected if you’re elected, try to get you unappointed if you’re appointed. And it’s a concerted effort on the part of a whole range of people. They include evangelical Christians on the right. They include right-wing Zionists in the Jewish community. It’s a very odd set of alliances, but it’s very effective.

AMY GOODMAN: Who shot Chas Freeman down?

JUAN COLE: Well, personally, I think it was congressional Democrats, who—you know, he was attacked by the neoconservatives, but they’re not in power. And I don’t think that would have mattered very much. But when people like Chuck Schumer—

AMY GOODMAN: The senator from New York.

JUAN COLE: —the senator from New York, began attacking Chas Freeman, and I think Nancy Pelosi had lunch with Freeman and—or, I’m sorry, with General Jones and said, “You know, you’re going to have to defend this man.” He was going to write the National Intelligence Estimates, or he was going to preside over the writing of the National Intelligence Estimates. Those National Intelligence Estimates have not been supportive of the Israeli line that Iran is an existential threat to Israel. They haven’t been able to find any evidence of an Iranian weapons program. And so, I think the Israel lobbies are very concerned to have someone like Freeman there, who also wouldn’t be sympathetic to the Israeli hard line.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, who specifically would you say was most responsible, in terms of the lobbies? And how upfront were they? As you write, lobbyists like to do things behind the scenes. They had to get a little in front of the scenes this time.

JUAN COLE: Well, I just think that, you know, if he’s going to—he was going to be the one who had to go up to the Hill and defend the National Intelligence Estimates to Congress, and if there’s a substantial bloc in Congress that is very suspicious of him, to begin with, who just wouldn’t accept anything that he had to say on face value, then it is going to make trouble for the sixteen intelligence agencies whose intelligence is being reported. So I think he just felt that he would be undermined.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about Israel’s line on Iran. What about the politics in Israel? In our headlines today, reading that Netanyahu has formed a pact with the far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman, an attempt to form a right-wing government in which Lieberman would become Israel’s foreign minister. He’s called for laws to require Palestinians living in Israel to swear loyalty to the Jewish state.

JUAN COLE: He’s called for laws for Israelis, Israeli citizens, to have a loyalty test. These are—

AMY GOODMAN: Not singling out Israeli Arabs?

JUAN COLE: They’re singling out Israeli Arabs. What I’m saying is that you said “Palestinians.” I just want to make clear, these are not Palestinians on the West Bank who are not Israeli citizens. Or this is—he wants a loyalty test. This is—he’s a racist, and this is a kind of Israeli McCarthyism. And it’s unacceptable. And the Israeli government should be told, it’s unacceptable to have someone with the views of Avigdor Lieberman in the government. It’s unacceptable. The rest of the international community have to give this message to Netanyahu. You know, when you had neo-fascists arise in places like Austria, there was a strong message sent by the European community: this is not acceptable. The same thing has to be done with the Israeli right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what effect did that have? And what effect do you think it would have here?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think that it marginalized the Austrian right, the Austrian far right. And I think that the same thing has to be done with the Israeli far right. They can’t be given a pass on these things.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the title of your book, Engaging the Muslim World—how do you think the US should do that, President Obama should do that?

JUAN COLE: Well, of course, in each case, it’s somewhat different. But the main thing is that the Bush administration began by talking about crusades. It invaded two Muslim countries. It rampaged around the region, causing a lot of trouble. And it’s not necessary. You know, it’s an easy way to nail down certain kinds of resources, if that’s what you want, but it made for bad relations with the Middle East in so many ways.

And if the United States, as I said, you know, is going to need the Muslim world more and more in the coming decades, the necessity is to use American soft power, to engage people diplomatically; if we have a dispute with them, to find a way to resolve it without arms and to go forward, you know, treating people with respect and with decency and with diplomacy. And people say, “Well, that’s a trite message.” Well, it hasn’t been being done. You know, it can’t be trite if it’s not the status quo. It would be a revolution if we did this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Juan Cole for joining us. Juan Cole is a historian and blogger. He’s a professor of history at University of Michigan. Actually, I’ll be going to Michigan this Friday night, hope to see people in Grand Rapids. Juan Cole is also the blogger who does “Informed Comment,” a very popular blog online. His latest book is called Engaging the Muslim World.

* Juan Cole, a longtime analyst of US-Mideast affairs and a professor of history at the University of Michigan, takes an in-depth look at US foreign policy under the Obama administration, from the plan for withdrawal from Iraq, to the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the continued US drone attacks inside Pakistan, US policy toward Israel and the Occupied Territories and much more. Cole joins us on the first day of the publication of his new book, Engaging the Muslim World. [includes rush transcript]

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