A Call for Common Sense: Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World

When it comes to Washington’s dealings with the so-called Muslim world, common sense rarely enters the equation. Instead, fear, anger, and myth dominate the thinking behind those dealings. Al too often, in instances where Washington might otherwise attempt to negotiate a resolution in its favor if the people it was dealing with weren’t Muslim it seems that negotiations are not even considered. Prime examples of this reality are the beginnings of the current occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Both US attacks on Iraq were preceded by ultimatums, not negotiation. Those ultimatums were accompanied by outright lies about Iraq’s intentions and capabilities. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was also preceded by a series of ultimatums that were called negotiations by Washington and the complicit US media. When the Taliban government in Kabul at the time attempted to honestly negotiate with Washington over the ultimatums it had been handed, the ultimatum was modified to include demands Washington knew Kabul could not meet. To use a sports analogy, every time it looked like Baghdad or Kabul might be able to meet the demands of Washington, the goalposts were moved. Washington had no intention of negotiating anything and its so-called negotiations were nothing more than preparations for war. A similar scenario seems to be at play in Washington’s dealings with Iran.

Although the recently departed Bush administration made the approach described above into a diplomatic art form that drew more from television wrestling than any treatise on statecraft, they did not invent this approach. Nor will they be the last US administration to utilize it. Already, Obama’s Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has made comments regarding Iran that are equivalent to any threat made under George Bush’s watch. Furthermore, the men and women doing Obama’s work in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world are following the same trail already worn down by Bush’s people. Despite the hopes of millions who voted for Barack Obama, very little seems to have changed in the way Washington deals with its enemies. Into this impasse comes commentator and Mideast scholar Juan Cole and his new book titled Engaging the Muslim World.

Nothing less than a call to use some common sense in dealing with that part of the world Washington defines as the Muslim World, Cole takes a sweeping look at the history of the region from Egypt to Iran; from Pakistan to Gaza; and asks what it is that causes Washington to deal with the peoples of these nations in a manner often quite different from the manner in which it deals with other nations. Cole ends each chapter with a brief series of suggestions as to how Washington might better approach the problems it believes exists with regard to the issues of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and the various Islamic popular movements that have all recently been placed on Washington’s enemies list. He asks questions that need to be asked yet seem to not even be considered. Why are US troops still in Iraq? Why does a nation (the US) that has the notion of religious freedom encoded into its constitution insist on making the religious beliefs of these nations a cause for enmity? If Washington won’t negotiate with its enemies, than who will it negotiate with? If Tel Aviv and Washington support democracy, why do they refuse to acknowledge the democratic victory of Hamas?

Despite bringing up these issues, the real strength of Cole’s book is in the history he provides. Written for a western audience, the history surveyed here covers the genesis of the Islamist movements, their interaction with governments both local and internationally, yet it does not dwell on the religious aspects of those movements. instead, it discusses the political and economic role these movements have played and continue to play in the overall history of the nations involved. The anti-imperialist nature of the movements is discussed as is their popularity among the Muslim world precisely for their anti-imperialism. Underlying the historical narrative herein is a sincere and usually successful discussion of the complexities involved in that history. Unlike the dichotomous version of the world presented by the Bush administration and its allies, where Washington leads the good guys against the bad guys of Islam, Cole’s nuanced presentation of the history and current situation of US dealings with the Muslim world provide the reader with a clearer understanding of not only what is at stake, but also what is really going on. His perspective removes the often overwrought fears that have predominated mainstream US discourse on the subject at hand.

If we are to have a future world where peace prevails, it will require Washington and its allied governments to coexist with the the part of the world we know as the “Muslim world.” The approach that demanded its subjugation to Washington’s whims has been shown to be bankrupt. To achieve coexistence, one must have understanding. Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World is the ideal primer.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Barry99 said on March 17th, 2009 at 12:27pm #

    I will read Juan Cole – as always.

  2. Max Shields said on March 17th, 2009 at 12:55pm #

    Juan Cole is an Obama/Dem sycophant.

  3. ron said on March 17th, 2009 at 1:04pm #

    which does not mean that he has absolutley nothing interesting or good to say.

  4. Max Shields said on March 17th, 2009 at 1:24pm #

    Ron, I agree with his theme, and I don’t mean to say his historical perspective is not worth reading. I’m simply saying that this guy sees absolutely nothing substanitively amiss with Obama’s “policies” in the ME.

    I call that being a sycopant. Call it what you will.

  5. Max Shields said on March 17th, 2009 at 1:49pm #

    For clarification purposes. Cole has made it very clear that he believes Obama will remove ALL troops (bases???) from Iraq and that he soon see the light on Afghanistan.

    No one who seems wed to Obama, the myth, seems to be LISTENING to what Obama actually says. Whether it’s on matters of economics or foreign policy. Yes, he placates more than did the decider in chief (aka half-wit), but that’s hardly the point, and the point is what Mr. Cole misses entirely.

    As far as the book. I haven’t read it but his agenda is concerning given he never let a death go by when Bush was in power, and now seems far less inclined to ‘comment’ with the zeal of a truthsayer. And I’m less inclined to visit his “Informed” Comments site.

  6. ron said on March 17th, 2009 at 2:00pm #

    Obviously, Cole is wrong about Obama and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan when it comes to his belief that Obama will remove all troops. That will not happen without a large and loud mass movement against those adventures. Cole’s always been between the obama “left” and the anti-imperialist left. Nonetheless, the book is very useful for the reasons I point out.