Six Questions for Juan Cole, Author of the new book: Engaging the Muslim World

Historians in the News

Juan Cole is one of the nation’s leading historians focusing on the Middle East. Over the past decade he has emerged as a commentator on Middle East policy and a reliable source for new ideas that may enable the United States to pursue its foreign policy objectives more effectively in the region. For millions, his frequent posts at the Informed Comment blog provide a daily update on press accounts from the Islamic world, often including translations from Arabic- and Farsi-language sources in close-to-real time. His new book, Engaging the Muslim World, will be published on March 17.

1. What are the three biggest misperceptions Americans have about the global Islamic community?

One: If you watch American television, you see the most extreme charges against Muslims set forth by pundits. Some allege that Muslims are inherently violent and commanded by scripture to attack infidels. In fact, the Quran forbids murder and commands Muslims to make peace with people who seek peace with them. The “infidels” whom the Quran urges the faithful to combat were the militant pagans of ancient Mecca, who had aggressively attacked the Muslims and were trying to kill them all. The Quran praises the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels as full of “guidance and light,” celebrates the children of Israel, and says that Christians are closest in love to Muslims. Of course, some Muslims are bigoted and manage to ignore those parts of their scripture, but it is not the case that the religion is essentially militant. I’ve gone with Americans to the Middle East, and after a few days they typically come and confess to me that they are amazed at how nice the people are, how kind and generous to foreigners, and how little they resemble U.S. media stereotypes.

Two: Many Americans seem to view the Muslim world as the new Soviet Union, as a relatively monolithic and uniformly hostile bloc of nations. This point of view seems to me oddly detached from reality. Turkey is a NATO ally, and Washington has designated Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan as non-NATO allies. Other governments of Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen have offered the U.S. intelligence, security, and/or military cooperation of a high order. Aside from Europe, there is probably no other culture area on the globe where the United States has as many formal and informal allies. The only countries the United States has relatively severe differences with among nearly fifty Muslim-majority states are Syria, Iran, and the Sudan, and that sort of thing changes over time.

Three: Americans underestimate how beloved American culture is in the Muslim world. U.S. films, television programs, music, Internet programming, and politics are matters of huge public interest, especially among youth. All the polling shows that “they” do not “hate our way of life” at all. Rather, there is enormous interest in democracy, more individual freedoms, and in free market reforms. Muslim publics report deep dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy on Israel/Palestine, on Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say they dislike what they see as Hollywood sexual values. But the American dream is wildly popular, even (or especially) in Iran....
Read entire article at Harper's

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Randll Reese Besch - 3/18/2009

A nice Q & A from Juan Cole. It bothers me that the cabal wanted to make sure that we have plenty of enemies to support their top heavy military/industrial/surveillance complex needs to have plenty to do in manufacturing and deployment and expenditure of ordinance on the 'enemy' of the time.

Things won't change till we extirpate that mind set from our gov't and intellectual arenas. Till it is shown to be bereft of any use and in fact is a danger and is nothing but quakery it shall remain in the fore of the pundits and think tanks.