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Meet the Real Islam

History professor and blogger Juan Cole succeeds at debunking American myths about the Muslim world. It's the policy prescription that's trite.

In the final Republican presidential debate last year, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, speaking about America's adversaries in the so-called "war on terror," told the audience: "This is about Shi'a and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate."

So many powerful groups, representing hundreds of millions of people, united against freedom and moderation and democratic ideals. Quite a harrowing thought.

Lucky for us, Romney's statement wasn't actually true. Shiites don't want a caliphate; it's a Sunni notion. Hamas may target civilians, but the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence years ago. The Brotherhood's chief political goal, at least in Egypt, is to oppose the authoritarian secular regime and establish a moderate Muslim one.


Unfortunately, Romney's embarrassing lack of knowledge about Islam and the Middle East is too common. Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, it remains a part of the world few Americans understand. Ignorance and Islamophobia, especially among U.S. leaders, retards progress on the very real Islam-centered issues the country faces, from Iran's nuclear ambitions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Afghan poppy trade.

University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, known among liberal netrooters as the blogger of "Informed Comment," attempts to set things straight in Engaging the Muslim World.

As Cole sees it, America has a taxonomy problem. Politicians like Romney lump a host of disparate Muslim groups together, shoehorning them into "an unlikely role as the new Soviet Union." The Afghan people are assumed to be Taliban supporters. Islam-powered political parties are treated as Islamofascists, instead of what many are: religiously tinged successors of anti-colonial struggles. An abhorrence of U.S. foreign policy is equated with hatred of American ideals and pro-terrorism sentiments — even when extensive polling data on the Arab street contradicts such logic.

What Cole calls our "Islam anxiety" casts a negative light on almost any faction with the slightest whiff of theocratic belief. This, despite America's own deeply religious culture, as reflected by a 2006 Gallup poll that found 46 percent of Americans believing the Bible should be a source of U.S. law, and 9 percent saying it should be the only source of the law.

At other times, U.S. policymakers create artificial distinctions between similar groups to suit their purposes. The result is outright hypocrisy. Leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party and Palestine's Hamas share political and social goals, as well as ties to paramilitaries. Yet the U.S. government often treats the Iraqi group as an ally and Hamas as a fanatical terrorist group.


Cole guides readers through a fascinating tour of key regimes, political parties and movements in the Middle East and Asia - their histories, beliefs and place within a tangled knot of alliances and conflicts. He also provides a solid summary of America's relationship with Muslim countries, post-World War II. Clumsy military intervention and imperialistic mercantilism dominate; documents and speeches point toward petroleum as the heart of American interest in the region. American leaders, from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Rumsfeld, come across as dim-witted buffoons. In one astounding memo, Rumsfeld claimed oil wealth had left Muslims around the Persian Gulf lazy and "against physical labor."

Even if our leaders change, Cole says, the dynamics of petroleum won't. He's lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East, and he has warm feelings toward the area's residents. Clearly, he wants to save Eastern and Western lives, end discrimination and promote peace. But his chief argument for engaging with the Muslim world places him in the realm of geopolitical realists: We need them for their oil.

Cole believes energy independence and renewable fuels are fabulous goals, but they won't be ready in time. During the next several decades, he claims, the United States will become ever more reliant on Middle Eastern petroleum, and competition is only tightening as the oil and gas needs of China and India increase. Already, some 70 percent of world petroleum output ends up fueling automobiles; the number of vehicles on the road is expected to double within about 20 years.

Click here to read more Miller-McCune book reviews.

Click here to read more Miller-McCune book reviews.

More than a few times, Cole goes overboard with conspiratorial conjecture. Of the U.S. bombing of Arab news channel Al-Jazeera's Kabul offices, he writes, without providing evidence, "Although the U.S. military said it was an accident, I remain suspicious that it was deliberate." It's hardly the sort of claim that will persuade anyone other than leftist devotees to go along with his broader arguments. And his pages-long conspiracy theory about the war in Iraq, Dick Cheney, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and oil pipelines reads like the muddled rough draft of a Michael Moore script.

Cole is at his best, though, when debunking myths about the recent history of Islam and the Muslim world. Despite the region's looming hazards, the book reads as an Obamaian paean to calm rationality. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be a nut, Cole says, but he's not a dangerous nut. Muslims, he notes, don't really hate us for our freedoms: Even in Iran, 75 percent of respondents in a 2008 poll had a negative view of the Bush administration, about the same proportion as among Americans. And only 1 in 5 Iranians had an unfavorable opinion of the American people.

Cole also raises key questions about alleged links between Islam and violence. If Wahabbi beliefs are the root cause of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, then why is Wahabbi Qatar so much less repressive? If the Iraqi insurgency was led by al-Qaeda, then why were so many of its fighters secular nationalists? And why did the death of al-Qaeda Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have almost no effect on the insurgency?

Cole doesn't think Islam is primarily responsible for making young boys angry and turning young men and women into suicide bombers. "Cultural traditions do not commit violence, people do, and they do so for concrete reasons in particular situations," he writes.

For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on

Cole only hints at a comprehensive diagnosis, but he seems to be saying that socioeconomics, nonreligious cultural traditions and America all share some of the blame for violence in the Middle East. Because he doesn't take a hard stance on the specific origins, when he offers prescriptions, the text is often less than compelling. Mostly, Cole chants the standard leftist mantra: If America would only rethink our elbows-out Middle Eastern meddling and stop blindly siding with Israel, things might change.

Just because his general argument is trite, though, doesn't necessarily make him generally wrong. The real shortcoming of his plan for engagement with the Middle East is its lack of originality. In Iraq, his ideas consist of platitudes about political cooperation, reforming the Iraqi government and strengthening the home-grown military. In Pakistan, he supports more nonmilitary aid. In Israel, Cole says we should restart the peace process and "think boldly" about what a final accord would look like. In general, these solutions seem shoved into the chapters, after the fact. But even with its shortcomings, Cole is such a shrewd analyst of recent Muslim history that his book would be well worth a look for the new Clinton-led State Department. It offers an incomplete vision of how America might engage with the Muslim world but a cogent argument for why we must.

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