September 28, 2008 – The relationship between the West and the Muslim world in these early years of the 21st century can be characterized by one word: anxiety.
“There’s Islam anxiety in the West and there is America anxiety in the Muslim world,” says Middle East specialist Juan Cole, author of “Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East” and the forthcoming “Engaging the Muslim World.”
The West is anxious over security, terrorism and energy, says Cole. The Muslim world is anxious over U.S. aggression, U.S. occupation and destabilization of the region.
Cole will discuss his take on the Middle East at a lecture Saturday night in Sarasota, sponsored by the Florida Veterans for Common Sense and Florida Consumer Action Network.
Cole, a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, is former editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies and president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. In 2006, he received the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism administered by Hunter College. He writes a blog, “Informed Comment” (juancole.com), that averages 25,000 hits per day.
His interest in the Middle East extends back to his adolescence, when his father, in the Signal Corps, was stationed in Asmara, Eritrea (then Ethiopia), a mixed Christian and Muslim community.
“I lived in this town with mosques and had Muslim acquaintances and was there during momentous events in the Middle East, such as the Yemeni civil war and the 1967 Six-Day War,” he said, speaking from his home in Ann Arbor.
Cole’s understanding of the current situation in Iraq and Iran differs from “the standard one in most U.S. parlance,” he said. “First of all, I think it’s not widely understood that the most pro-Iranian, most fundamentalist Shiite parties took over” the Iraqi government, he said “and because the U.S. spokespersons are always denouncing Iranian influence in Iraq, they tend to give the impression that the government is not already an Iranian client.”
Cole also is concerned about the wars the United States is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq that are “spilling over into Pakistan.” In his lecture, he will “talk about the way those wars are being seen and the way in which the wars have been configured in the West. Those wars for American politicians are seen as an extension of the war on terror.”
But in the Middle East, “the people can’t see what the connection would have been between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. They are very suspicious of that war and see it as a grab for resources. The rationale that might make sense to some Americans makes no sense whatsoever in the Middle East.”
Cole says that the war in Iraq is having an impact on the perception of the U.S. throughout the Muslim world. As an example, he cites Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.
“In 2000, 75 percent of Indonesians said they had a favorable view of the United States, and this is the largest Muslim population in the world. Now it’s 25 percent. Our public image in Indonesia has suffered mainly because of the Iraq war. What we have to think about as a nation is: Are we harmed by having a poor image in the largest Muslim country?”
The solution lies in better diplomacy, says Cole.
“My argument would be that we’re not explaining ourselves very well, and some of the policies we’re adopting in a rather aggressive and unilateral way in one part of the Muslim world are boomeranging on us in other parts.”