Book review: Juan Cole’s “Engaging the Muslim World”

Stereotypes, ignorance and misrepresentation have long pervaded US media coverage of Islam. In his 1981 book Covering Islam, the late Edward Said analyzed these distortions in the light of the relationship between knowledge and power and found that hostile representations are often informed by the particular circumstances of the engagement between the US and the Muslim world and the asymmetry of power between them. Little has improved in the years since, even as the focus on the region has intensified. Many of the misrepresentations that Said observed still abound, but the increased attention since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 11 September 2001, has inflamed suspicions and reinforced resentments making it easier for demagogic politicians to exploit. In his timely and insightful new book, Engaging the Muslim World, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole debunks prevailing myths and presents a set of compelling policy prescriptions that aim to encourage dialogue and defuse hostilities. However, while he convincingly addresses the questions of knowledge, unlike Said, he leaves issues of power largely unexamined.

Few academics attain the kind of status that Juan Cole enjoys today. Cole’s award-winning blog Informed Comment is a necessary daily stop for any serious student of the Middle East; experts frequently defer to his authority. Fluent in several of the region’s languages, Cole culls information from a wide range of sources — regional and international — and presents them in a lively, jargon-free language. In the notoriously conformist US academy, Cole has remained both critical and credible. He has the breadth of knowledge and the incisive wit to demolish propaganda edifices as quickly as they are erected. For his efforts he has weathered a sustained campaign of vilification, and has, on at least one occasion, been denied a well-deserved appointment. Yet, Cole has steadfastly brought his phenomenal erudition to bear on developments in the Middle East, reporting, interpreting, analyzing.

With Engaging the Muslim World, Cole aims to correct the record on recent US encounters with the Muslim world and address the causes of what he calls “Islam Anxiety.” Cole highlights the tendency of popular American discourse to blur differences and homogenize diverse confessional and political entities into a single civilizational threat. He captures this failure to make distinctions in a memorable quote from former presidential candidate Mitt Romney who attributes to Shia and Sunni, to Hizballah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, a single global jihadist agenda whose ultimate goal is the destruction of the West and the establishment of a global caliphate.

As Cole notes, the caliphate is a Sunni notion, and even among Sunni groups only a fringe is committed to its attainment. Hizballah is a Shia organization and its quarrel is only with Israel. The Sunni Hamas is likewise committed only to the liberation of occupied Palestine; its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, has renounced violence and participates in legitimate electoral politics. The political Islamist disposition of Hamas couldn’t be the reason why it is proscribed by the US; the kindred ideology of the Iraqi Islamic Party hasn’t barred it from allying with the US. Saudi intolerance and abuses of human rights couldn’t be a consequence of Wahhabism, since Wahhabi Qatar manages to be both forward looking and liberal. Islamic fundamentalism does not define Pakistan, where politics is dominated by secular liberal parties. Iran’s recalcitrance is merely a consequence of being repeatedly spurned in its repeated attempts at rapprochement.

Cole steers the conversation away from what Mahmood Mamdani has called “Culture Talk” — i.e., the tendency to seek cultural causes for political effects, especially, the tendency of Western analysts to pathologize political violence and look for its causes in the teachings of Islam. He shows terrorism as a fringe phenomenon, analogous to white supremacist groups in the United States. He makes a distinction between reformist political Islamist organizations and Islamist revolutionaries and advocates engagement with the former as a means of marginalizing the latter. For each of the regions he investigates, Cole describes the concrete historical, economic, social and political circumstances that have shaped its politics. In six chapters Cole presents an excellent overview of the issues that dominate US concerns in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iran. However, in a curious omission, no chapter is devoted to Palestine even though Cole admits that an equitable solution to the conflict “would resolve 90 percent of America’s problems with the Muslim world.” Also, while Cole is diligent in his debunking of various myths about Islam and Muslims, he fails to investigate their provenance. The neoconservative power structure, with its network of think tanks, foundations, terror experts and publicists, receives only cursory attention.

While Cole rightly notes the absurdity of notions such as “Islamofascism” or “Islamic terrorism” (“the word ‘Islamic’ like ‘Judaic’ merely refers to the ideals of the religion”), his own first chapter is entitled “The struggle for Islamic oil.” US dependence on “Islamic” oil, according to Cole, is one of the major sources of what he calls “Islam Anxiety.” However, he does not explain why Venezuelan oil isn’t a source of Latino Anxiety. Also, as Cole himself notes, of the top five energy suppliers to the US in 2008, only one (Saudi Arabia) is a Muslim country. Could it be that the actual cause of the said anxiety is the vast Islamophobic propaganda operation managed by the likes of Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Steve Emerson or Robert Spencer? Cole concedes that it is not the dependence on foreign imports that Americans resent — after all, the US depends on imports for “91 percent of its platinum, 72 percent of its chromium, 76 percent of its cobalt, and 88 percent of its tin.” To explain why dependence on oil would be a cause of “Islam anxiety,” he turns to pop psychology instead. Oil, he argues, is “wrought up with gender and race” because “American men view [their] vehicles as symbols of freedom and masculinity,” and having Arabs and Iranians — “among the more disliked ethnicities” — determine its price is “galling and even perhaps felt as castrating” because they control American sources of “manhood and liberty.”

There is no disputing that oil remains the pre-eminent US interest in the Middle East; it is also at the heart of the longstanding relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. As Chalmers Johnson notes in The Sorrows of Empire, US strategic planners consciously tried to avoid the British imperial example and consolidated their position in the region by developing close, friendly relations with the house of Saud. With the exception of Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, until the end of the Cold War, every State Department was a proponent of engagement with the Arab states. Neocons to this day deride State Department realists as “Arabists.” Big Oil has been likewise disposed toward friendlier relations with the Arabs — its self-interest demands it. In 1967 it even engaged in diplomatic initiatives to stave off the looming war. Regional wars have always worked to Big Oil’s detriment. The Suez crisis in 1956 created an anti-Western sentiment which affected many oil companies. In 1967 exporters boycotted the US and the Netherlands in support of Israel’s Arab adversaries. Anger at unconditional Western support for Israel precipitated the wave of Arab nationalizations beginning in the early 1970s. In 1973 the October war was followed by the famous Arab embargo. In 2001 even Saudi Arabia for the first time opened its oil for bidding by non-US companies following US silence over atrocities committed by Israel during the second Palestinian intifada.

In short, each one of Big Oil’s setbacks has been the consequence of US support for Israel. This US-Israel special relationship was recognized as a handicap by former CIA director and energy expert John McCone as far back as 1967, Cole shows. After the war, writes Cole, “McCone saw the Johnson administration’s unreserved support for Israel and Israeli expansionism as a profound threat to the position of the United States and its petroleum corporations in the Arab world.”

But if Israel is such a liability, why does the United States continue to support it? This is the fundamental question that Cole unfortunately sidesteps. Domestic political imperatives in the form of pressure from the Israel lobby have ensured unconditional support for Israel, and this has served as the main barrier to US economic interests in the region. Like most analysts on the left, Cole fails to appreciate that commerce is the potential bridge between the US and the resource-rich Middle East. As Grant F. Smith shows in his forthcoming Spy/Trade, the Israel lobby has successfully pre-empted opportunities for trade with bills such as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and engendered an environment that is hostile to the region and its people. The effect of the lobby’s relentless demonization of Arabs and Muslims was most evident during the recent Dubai Ports scandal, when a legitimate Middle East business was denied commission after being portrayed as a dangerous terrorist front. These attitudes have alienated the region and robbed US businesses of a vast potential market.

The analysis likewise fails when it comes to the causes of the Iraq war. While Cole admits that former US Vice President Dick Cheney was repeatedly thwarted in the 1990s by the lobby group AIPAC in his attempts to have sanctions against Iraq lifted, he continues to insist that the war was waged for oil. After presenting an uncharacteristically weak critique of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s argument that the Israel lobby was one of the main reasons why US went to war, Cole avers that Cheney made a “conceptual breakthrough”: “he may have seen that if he pushed for regime change in Iraq and Iran, he could turn AIPAC and the Israel lobbies into allies of oil majors’ plans for investment in Iraq and Iran.” This may well be true, but far from contradicting Mearsheimer and Walt, it confirms their argument since it suggests that absent the lobby, Cheney would have no reason to go to war with Iraq. His only interest was oil — not weapons of mass destruction, human rights, or democracy promotion — and he had no qualms about doing business with Saddam Hussein.

The war-for-oil argument is further weakened by the fact that on at least three occasions, between August 2002 and March 2003, Saddam Hussein had tried to stave off war by offering guaranteed concessions to US companies. (See, among others, Stephen Sniegoski’s The Transparent Cabal, by far the best analysis of the causes of the war.)

With a new US administration being ushered in and the likelihood of change in the air, Cole’s intervention is no doubt timely and significant. Each chapter ends with policy prescriptions that are invariably sound, if overly US-centric. He refutes the racist and bigoted assumptions that underlie American views of the Muslim world, and makes a persuasive case for engagement. In the end, however, relations between the US and the Middle East are not strained because of nebulous notions such as “Islam anxiety,” but power configurations such as the Israel lobby which have an interest in thwarting any such engagement lest it jeopardize the US’s special relationship with Israel. By failing to address these barriers Cole offers prescriptions that have at best ad hoc value. This is an important book — a must read — in so far as it addresses how Americans keep getting the Middle East wrong; it could have been an indispensable book had Cole also questioned why.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the co-founder of PULSE. He can be reached at m.idrees A T gmail D O T com.

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