Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008) 247 pp. + index. Reviewed by Rex Wingerter

Written by admin on May 23rd, 2010

The late Edward Said  lamented  years prior to 9/11 that America and the West were adopting a “devil theory of Islam,” where behind every explosion hid a worldwide Islamic conspiracy.  Since the attacks, the theory has emerged full blown.  Juan Cole views such Western fears to be indicative of “Islam Anxiety,” a condition where the Muslim world is viewed “solely in a cultural and religious context and not understanding the social and economic dynamics that drive its tensions with the West.” Engaging the Muslim World is tendered as an antidote to this angst. A history professor at the University of Michigan and a recognized top expert on the Middle East, he’s been offering his insights for some time on his well-known web log Informed Comment.com.

The first chapter bluntly explains why Americans need to take a fair-minded approach to Islam: oil.  A resource found largely in Muslim-majority countries, Cole warns that these oil producing countries soon will tire of America’s threats and demonization and sell their product to non-American buyers. The result will be dangerous resource wars between and among oil suppliers and consumers. “Petroleum makes the world go round,” he notes, “which means that, increasingly, Muslims will make the world go round.” Assuring the continued supply of oil to the U.S., in his view, is best served by improving friendly relations with the Muslim world.

Seeking to shatter anti-Muslim stereotypes, Cole points to public opinion polls showing that most Muslims don’t hate our freedom after all. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi Arabians think democracy is the best form of government and four-fifth of Iranians view the American people favorably. His knack for invoking comparisons also is an effective pedagogical tool:  the 4 million displaced Iraqis resulting from the U.S. invasion would be proportionately equivalent to the entire populations of California and Michigan. Similarly, the estimates of the number of Iraqi deaths range from the entire population of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati to imagining that “a death ray had mown down everyone in Ohio.”

Cole’s critiques of “radical Islam” will be heresy for readers accustomed to mainstream U.S. punditry. He dismisses the idea that Islamic fundamentalist groups are powerful and pervasive in Muslim societies. The September 11th attacks did not herald the beginning of the Islamic revolution but symbolized “the flailing about of a dying organization of aging revolutionaries banished to camps in the rugged waste-lands of failed states.” Heretical nor not, his thoughtful insights and arguments are compelling.

Arab attitudes toward U.S. leadership – distinct from their attitude toward the American people – are poor.  Approval rates in Egypt for President Obama only reach 37 percent. This, advises Cole, is on account of “American Anxiety,” a condition where Muslim-majority countries fear that Washington seeks to cripple and destroy their religious identity and control their resources. Opinion polls support his theory: 79 percent of those questioned in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia believe that America seeks to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” A similar percentage in those countries believe the United States wants “control over the resources of the Middle East” and about 64 percent believed Washington wanted to spread Christianity among them.

Such disquiet is understandable based on how the U.S. helped to overthrow Mosaddegh in Iran, perhaps placed Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, and has propped up authoritarian regimes through the region. But the emphasis in Engaging the Muslim World is less on U.S. policy machinations and more on highlighting the confusing complexity of the Middle East. This is where Cole shines, deftly describing the histories and intricacies of individual countries. He disputes accusations that Wahhabism, the fundamentalist strain of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, is the cause for the Kingdom’s repressive political policies by pointing out that the co-religious State of Qatar is much less repressive. Pakistan and Afghanistan are shown to have their own factious, domestic agendas that often are distinctly different, if not contrary, to American efforts to fight Taliban insurgents. Iran’s political history makes it highly unlikely that it will halt its uranium enrichment efforts but similarly unlikely to embark on a campaign of regional conquest. Cole also touches on Lebanon, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah with equal craftsmanship.

Little is said about Israel, except to contend that the Israel/Palestine conflict significantly undermines U.S. interests in the Middle East. Many would pause at his claim that the conflict’s equitable resolution would resolve 90 percent of U.S. problems with the Muslim world. But the suggestion that Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon would vacate Hizbullah’s justification for militancy makes sense.

Many will cast Cole as an apologist for Islamic fundamentalist violence. Others will dismiss as naïve his call for mutual understanding and cooperation between North Atlantic and Muslim countries. But if Cole does at times sound like a defender of the Muslim world, it’s because he is one of the few knowledgeable voices that eschews fear mongering and offers a clam, reasoned approach to explaining the Muslim and Arab worlds. At a time when the Obama Administration appears to be adopting “Bush-lite” policies toward the region, such a perspective is sorely needed.

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