Alumni Association University of Michigan Winter 2010 : Page 33
History in the Making Professor Juan Cole’s blog is both loved and loathed, yet no one can match the clarity and confidence with which he delivers his “Informed Comment.”
History in the Making
Professor Juan Cole’s blog is both loved and loathed, yet no one can match the clarity and confidence with which he delivers his “Informed Comment.”<br /> <br /> Watching Juan Cole pace gingerly throughout his lecture in Auditorium A of Angell Hall, few would think he’s among “The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America,” as conservative author and activist David Horowitz pegged him in his 2006 book, “The Professors.” In his navy cardigan and plaid button-down shirt, and with hands stuffed into the pockets of his neatly pressed pants, Cole looks every bit the bespectacled 57-year-old history professor.<br /> <br /> Yet after September 11 and at the dawn of the war in Afghanistan, he began voicing his views on Middle Eastern affairs via his award-winning blog, Informed Comment (www.juancole.com). Soon, he had a cadre of detractors as well as supporters. Critics have called him a leftist blogger, an apologist for radical Islam, virulent and a whiny wannabe Marxist commissar. Those are the printable comments. But fans say his blog is essential reading; that, like him or not, “most of the time he’s right”; and that he makes us “think in new patterns.”<br /> <br /> Educating the Masses <br /> <br /> A self-proclaimed Army brat, Cole attended 12 schools in 12 years. It was during part of his childhood spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that young John Cole assumed the nickname Juan. And it was in Ethiopia, where he lived for 18 months while his father served in the satellite communication corps, that his interest in Islamic studies began.<br /> <br /> Fluent in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and some Turkish, he has lived and studied in many countries throughout the Middle East and Asia, including India; Jordan; Pakistan, where he met and married his wife, Shahin; Lebanon, where he was present for part of the civil war; and Egypt, where he received his master’s in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo in 1978. He received his undergraduate degree in history and literature of religions from Northwestern University in 1975 and his PhD in Islamic studies at UCLA in 1984.<br /> <br /> “After 9/11, people were puzzled. They hadn’t heard about al-Qaida before, they didn’t know much about Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was the arena of the initial events,” says Cole. “Since I lived there and followed Afghan and Pakistan politics for the past 20 years, I didn’t have to look things up.” He was quickly called upon to answer questions from academics and journalists trying to make sense in the aftermath.<br /> <br /> Though he has authored a dozen texts; translated several books, including three works by famed Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran; and written for scores of journals and other publications, he is best known for Informed Comment, which began as a way to archive old discussion group emails. The blog has catapulted Cole to celebrity status, with appearances on the “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” “Nightline,” the “Today” show, “Anderson Cooper 360°,” Al-Jazeera and many others. He’s even traded barbs with Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.<br /> <br /> Cole began his blog in April 2002 and has posted comments nearly every day since. After spending several hours each evening scouring newspapers and satellite news from various Middle Eastern countries, Cole typically writes a short essay putting the day’s events into context.<br /> <br /> For example, on January 4, Cole synthesized several recent events in Afghanistan that could threaten US policy.<br /> <br /> “Then on Thursday, all hell broke loose when a high-level ... Jordanian asset who had been informing to the CIA on the location of important al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives detonated a vest bomb at FOB Chapman in Khost province, a CIA forward base. The attacker killed 7 field officers and one Jordanian intelligence operative detailed to the base. Those experienced field officers were on the front lines in the fight against al-Qaeda and their loss is a big blow to counter-terrorism. It is true that they had been drawn in to a campaign of assassination, but it is the president who gave them that task—unwisely, in my view.” <br /> <br /> Prose and (Neo)Cons <br /> <br /> On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Cole lectured before a group of about 150 students, a few community members and one veteran of the Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion who just likes coming to class. As they listen to his 90-minute lecture on America and Middle Eastern wars, many furiously take notes as PowerPoint images of Osama bin Laden and events that led to September 11 are discussed.<br /> <br /> “University of Michigan students are fortunate to have one of the premier scholars of modern Middle East history in their midst,” says Mario Ruiz, PhD’04, an assistant professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Hofstra University who sought to study with Cole after completing his master’s in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. He adds that anyone who knows Cole knows he’s committed to rigorous and objective scholarship. “[He] has traveled extensively in South Asia and the Middle East and doesn’t confine his knowledge solely to scholarly books and articles.” <br /> <br /> It was Cole’s clear, outspoken prose—available to anyone with Internet access—that was the subject of much discussion in 2006 when he was passed over for an appointment at Yale University.<br /> <br /> “Potential outside offers from the Ivy League are never a bad thing,” says Cole, noting it’s not the first time he’s received an inquiry in his 25 years at U-M. “Professors are like baseball players who are always being looked at by other teams.” Yet an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Can Blogging Derail Your Career? 7 Bloggers Discuss the Case of Juan Cole,” suggests that Cole was rejected because opinions expressed in his blog clashed with the viewpoint of “rightwing hit men.” <br /> <br /> That subject is ancient history to Cole, who appreciates that U-M gave him the Hudson Research Professorship of History to write his 2007 book, “Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East,” and continues to allow him to pursue his academic interests entirely unfettered. He was also recently appointed director of the U-M Center for South Asian Studies and is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History.<br /> <br /> “I think it’s unfortunate that the phrase ‘ivory tower’ has some substance to it,” he says. “The assumptions we made in the days before the Internet were that you get a Fulbright, do your research, write up the research in analytical form essentially for other researchers, publish it in small press runs and declare that you’ve made contributions to disseminate your research.” He says that whole model is deeply flawed. “I respect deep research and academic writing. At the same time, I’ve discovered there is a public that’s thirsty for academic analysis which can be reached if one writes clearly.”<br /> <br /> Shaun Lopez, PhD’04, an assistant professor of history at the University of Washington, says Cole’s greatest value is that he engenders thoughtful debate, which he considers the cornerstone of an institute of higher education. “You certainly don’t have to agree with him, but his public stances on issues do force individuals and institutions to take into account an informed viewpoint,” says Lopez. A California native, Lopez was studying Arabic in Jordan when Cole called Lopez to discuss his interest in graduate school. “That he took the time to call all the way to Amman was instrumental in my final decision to come to Ann Arbor.”<br /> <br /> In Congruence <br /> <br /> In 2009, Cole wrote his most accessible book to date: “Engaging the Muslim World.” In it, he presents his analysis of what went wrong in the past few decades regarding relations between the United States and Muslim world, how the problems can be fixed and why it’s important to fix them. Written for a wide audience, Cole hopes that policymakers also read the book, and he knows of at least one official in the Department of State who has.<br /> <br /> “One of the things that has pleased me enormously is that the book has been warmly received by the Muslim community,” says Cole. “It isn’t always the case that academic studies of the Middle East and community politics are in congruence.” Cole hopes Middle Eastern countries also will warmly receive his next endeavor, an Arabic translation of the writing of Thomas Jefferson that he commissioned for his Global Americana Institute. The foundation aims to support translations of cross-cultural understanding.<br /> <br /> “My own research indicates that no significant proportion of Jefferson’s work has ever been translated into Arabic,” says Cole. “I see that as tragic. There’s also not a good book on Martin Luther King Jr. Or much access to books on the Civil War or the Supreme Court. What they tend to know about us comes from television.”<br /> <br /> Talk about tragic.<br /> <br /> Agree or disagree with his views, appreciating that Cole has a right to express them is a core democratic value. As someone who knows the complexities of the Middle East well enough to have testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iraq in 2004, Cole has a responsibility to share his knowledge. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who said “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”<br /> <br /> —Alice Rhein, ’84, MS’86, is a freelance writer based in Huntington Woods, Michigan.