FDL Book Salon Welcomes Juan Cole: Engaging the Muslim World

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Juan Cole: Engaging the Muslim World

I’m honored to be part of this FDL Book Salon on Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World. Professor Cole has long provided an invaluable reservoir of expert opinion on the Middle East, and I’m delighted to be able to participate in this discussion of his latest work.

Engaging the Muslim World is part of a debate that has developed in the academy and the mainstream media about the role of Islam in political life. Professor Cole’s purpose is to dispel common myths about Islam, and the relationship of the West with the Islamic world. These myths have, in many cases, been propounded intentionally for political effect. Professor Cole’s argument boils down to this; it is impossible to repair US relations with the Islamic world as long as the United States misunderstands that world.

Engaging the Muslim World includes two subject focused chapters, and four that discuss specific Muslim countries. The two subjects are oil and Muslim radicalism; Cole gives a good account of the history of oil as a resource, and its importance to the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. The Persian Gulf and the West are bound together by oil; the former is dependent on the latter for funding development and military capability, while the economies of the latter depend on oil to operate. Cole then tells the separate but related story of the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the political relevance of the Brotherhood across the Arab world. Key to Cole’s account is change; the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a static membership or political meaning across time and space. Cole makes pointed comparisons between Muslim extremists and right wing American extremists, noting that their proportions in the overall population are relatively similar, and the apocalyptic worldview that both share can lead to spectacular terrorism.

The four countries that Professor Cole concentrates on are Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. This concentration is not exclusive; in discussing each state, much reference is made to its relationships with other Muslim countries. For example, the chapter on Iran details the relationship between Israel, Iran, and Lebanon. Additionally, the chapter on the Muslim Brotherhood of necessity discusses Egyptian politics at length. In any case, Dr. Cole examines each state in terms of its status as a “problem” for American foreign policy. He notes that the framing as “problem” necessarily objectifies the states in question, and produces misunderstandings about their internal politics. He also examines how the historical behavior of the US and the West more generally has contributed to the “problem” framing.

Perhaps most importantly, Cole contests the notion that Islam stands at the center of the “problem” of the modern Middle East. The United States viewed Iraq as a problem before the question of Islam gained any salience; American concern in the 1960s and 1970s was about Iraq’s leftist tendencies and good relationship with the Soviet Union. Similarly, Anthony Eden compared Nasser to Hitler long before radical Muslim terrorists became a concern for the West. The difficulties of governance in Pakistan’s border areas have less to do with radicalism than with the inability of the Pakistani state to control its own territory. A variety of issues that have been wrapped together under the banner of “problems with Muslims” have little to do with each other and nothing whatsoever to do Islam.

Cole’s discussion of the Islam and the West doesn’t focus entirely on the Arab world, as he includes chapters on both Pakistan and Iran. However, I think it might have been helpful to have some discussion of Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, all of which have huge Muslim populations, but are not typically thought of as “problems” in same sense as Iraq or Saudi Arabia. I also wish that Cole had taken some time to discuss the growth of Islam in Europe, and specifically the attitudes that the various Muslim communities in Europe have towards the West generally and their adoptive states in particular. In the United Kingdom, for example, concern about the internal Muslim community substantially overrides concern about the Middle East; if British intelligence professionals are to be trusted, the concern is genuine. Finally, I sometimes felt that Professor Cole became over-reliant on polling data to make his points about attitudes in the Muslim world; public opinion polling in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states is problematic, and even under the best of circumstances public opinion polling is deeply dependent on context, wording, and timing.

Nevertheless, Engaging with the Muslim World offers a strong rebuttal to a series of popular misconceptions about life and politics in the Middle East. It’s completely accessible to general audiences, and should help to provide a good foundation anyone interested in the relationship between the United States and the Middle East.

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