“In the absence of empire, the United States can only hope to remain influential in the world by being
a good and trusted friend to others and being seen to abide by and champion international law. Future
U.S.-Iraqi relations will depend on what the Iraqi public thinks of the United States and will not grow
out of the barrel of a gun or out of the imperatives of military bases.”
–– Blog posting by Juan Cole, “U.S. Troop Withdrawal in Iraq on Track,” May 14, 2010
Juan Cole (MA ’78), the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and renowned blogger, has become an American fixture in Middle East studies. The prominent historian has garnered world attention for his blog, Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion. The blog has won several awards including the 2005 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism from Hunter College as well as two Koufax awards: best expert blog (2003) and best blog post (2004) for his article, “If America Were Iraq, What Would It be Like?” In addition, Cole has been frequently invited as a commentator in the American media on U.S. policies in the region, and, in 2004, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations requested his testimony at hearings to shed light on the situation in Iraq.
A historian of the modern Middle East and South Asia, Cole has long sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. He has served as editor of The International Journal of Middle East Studies and president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. His writings focus primarily on the social and cultural history of modern Egypt, the religious and cultural history of modern Iran and Iraq, and religion in South Asia. His most recent book, Engaging the Muslim World (2009), calls for establishing diplomatic relations with all forms of Islam and argues against the policy of preemptive military action and what he describes as the Bush administration’s “Islamophobic discourse.” He also wrote Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (2007), where he used eyewitness testimonials and records from firsthand witnesses to recount Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, drawing parallels at times with the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
A graduate of AUC’s Arabic studies master’s program, Cole’s interest in the Middle East began even before coming to the university. With his father in the U.S. military, Cole spent most of his childhood years traveling, including an 18-month stay in Asmara, Ethiopia (now Eritrea). “It was a momentous time to be in the Middle East,” Cole said. “I got to know a lot of Muslim people, and the 1967 war and the Yemeni civil war occurred while we were there. Americans actually came to the U.S. army base at Asmara fleeing from Sanaa, so it was a very direct introduction to the region and it piqued my interest. Then we stopped at Beirut, which was lovely. I fell in love with the place.”
Cole went on to study history and literature of religions at Northwestern University, traveling to Beirut during his senior year on a fellowship to study Muslim-Christian dialogue. After graduation, he returned to Lebanon to complete his master’s degree at the American University of Beirut. With the onset of the Lebanese civil war, however, the school year was cancelled, forcing Cole to flee the country and come to Cairo. This proved to be an auspicious beginning for him. “My studies at AUC in many ways laid the foundation for my later academic career,” said Cole, who earned his doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. “I was able to complete my coursework at UCLA relatively quickly, in just two years, because of the MA I received from AUC.”
Cole lived for six years in the Arab world, and another two and a half in India and Pakistan, eventually becoming fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. Immersing himself in the history and culture of the region, Cole became an expert on regional politics. He credits his blog for his public acclaim. “Blogging and the Internet gave me a voice beyond academia for the first time,” he noted. “In the ’80s and ’90s, if I sent an opinion piece to a newspaper, I never heard back. The gatekeepers wouldn’t let me in. In 2002, when I began putting my observations on my blog, I went around the gatekeepers. People had the same access to me as they did to CNN or CBS.”
During the U.S.-led war on Iraq, page viewership on Cole’s blog reached 1 million a month. “It was clear that mainstream media often didn’t know very much about Iraq, whereas I had written about Iraqi history and knew about Iraqi Shiites in particular, and so people started finding my site in very large numbers,” Cole explained. “I also received calls from television producers as well as radio and print media, and foreign ministries called me for consultations.”
Nevertheless, negative reactions have still found their way into Cole’s inbox, and some academics have wondered if blogging can be detrimental to a professor’s career –– something Cole vehemently refutes. “We are trying to understand how the world is working. If our understanding is controversial, then let it be controversial,” he affirmed. “As academics, we have a responsibility to use our privileged position to engage in critical thinking on the social conditions we see.”
Q: What is the biggest problem you foresee with blogging and social media in the Middle East?
Q: When will the Internet have its full impact in the region?
Q: But isn’t the Internet bound to cause social and political change?