Interview with Juan Cole by Ricky Martínez
(These are the English notes of the interview rearranged in pyramid form; they were translated and published in a different sequence in Spanish at La Prensa of Panama City). Many thanks to Mr. Martinez for a wide-ranging conversation!
Syria is different in so many ways… first of all, it’s not clear that a majority of Syrians necessarily want the government gone of at least that they would prefer the rebel forces to the government. Syria is a much more diverse country than Libya, in Syria you have 10-14% Christians, another 10-14% Shiites, and you have a large sector of urban, middle-class, relatively secular Sunni Muslims, and together they could easily form the majority of the country. And while they may not like the more authoritarian aspects of the Ba’ath government, they might prefer a secular government to a religious one. Many of the rebels, as things have developed, are invested in a Muslim Brotherhood, or even some of them have affiliated themselves with Al Qaeda. So I don’t think the moral clarity is apparent in Syria in the way that it was in Libya.
Secondarily, there is no UNSC authorization for the use of force in Syria, and I would have opposed a Libyan intervention if the UN hadn’t authorized one. I think international law is very important, I think the one thing that was wrong with Bush’s invasion of Iraq was that there was no UNSC authorization. If you undertake a military operation at a large scale in the Middle East without the support of the world, then it’s probably doomed to failure.
So there’s no authorization –Russia and China don’t want an intervention— and then Syria’s geography is not like Libya’s, the tanks are not out on desert roads, they are inside the cities, you couldn’t take out the artillery and the tanks without risking hitting apartment buildings with these large bombs and killing a lot of innocent civilians.
So, for all kinds of reasons I don’t think that an intervention in Syria is wise. I deeply regret the daily massive loss of life, and I wish there were a way for the international community to stop this carnage, but I feel helpless, I just don’t see a way.
RM: You were speaking about the importance of international law. Do you really think it’s possible to control the anarchy that exists at a supranational level?
JC: Historians who study the development of international of law and international treaties are not typically cynical. They find that even when there’s reluctance to abide by international law, that it’s claims are often consequential. Even though governments routinely disregard it or break it, international law still has a lot of weight in world affairs, and you can tell this because even the governments that do contravene it, deny that they have done so, they’re embarrassed about it, they get pressured… I’m not entirely sure that without international pressure, without the weight of international law, that the apartheid regime in South Africa could have been made to fall. And I think that the fact that George W. Bush went to Iraq without international law on his side meant that a lot of countries –France and Germany— were unwilling to help him, and he lost a lot of international support, and that was one of the reasons why he failed.
I understand why there would be cynicism about international law because it is often disregarded. But I think it often also has weight, and over time forms a point of pressure that does have consequences.
RM: The whole world is talking about the NSA scandal. How bad is it? Should we be worried?
JC: Well yes, I’m worried! I’m alarmed… of course, this is not in fact a new revelation, we’ve known about this for some time. Government surveillance is a problem, it violates basic norms of democracy when it is carried out without a warrant, without evidence of laws been broken.
On the other hand, they can’t actually surveil everybody. It’s impossible to monitor everyone. Technically, this information that they’re gathering is not that they’re watching you or me –- well, they might’ve been watching me —- but most people are not singled out for surveillance. It’s data mining, they’re looking for macro patterns, for certain kinds of connections, but the thing that displeases me it’s not that they’re spying on everybody at the time, it’s that the potential for abuse it great. And I don’t believe there’s probably sufficient oversight to forestall abuse. So, if a politician has a friend in the NSA and wanted the reputation of his rival to be destroyed by illegal surveillance, I think that’s something that can happen, and if it can happen it probably will happen. So that’s what I’m worried about, the politics of reputation coming out of this destruction of the whole idea of privacy.
RM: You wrote in Engaging the Muslim World that the world is facing the twin crisis of energy scarcity and climate change. How do you see the world reacting to them?
JC: As I suggested several years ago, solar energy is the only real, ultimate solution to these two crisis. The world is still growing population-wise, more and more people in Africa and Asia and the rest of the world are aspiring to a modern life rather than a village, agricultural one, and all of this makes the demand for more energy burgeon. Hydrocarbons simply could not possibly provide the kind of energy that is going to be demanded even over the next 50 years. Moreover, hydrocarbons cause very dangerous climate change which could destabilize our climate and our world.
My policy prescription would be to have a global massive program of solar installations. Solar panels have now come down in price to where they are competitive with hydrocarbons. They can be supplemented by wind and geothermal. But my frustration is that I see this change over to solar energy as urgent, as something we should try to do over the next 10 years, and most governments that pay any attention to the issue talk about having 50% renewable energy by 2050. To prevent debilitating climate change that’s way too late.
I have to say one of the reasons for which governments and the public are dragging their feet on this issue is that so much of our economy and our lives are wrought up with hydrocarbons that those companies employ a lot of people and have a lot of political clout, so they obfuscate the issue, they try to cast doubts on the by now quite solid findings of the climate scientists, or they try to drag their feet with regard to the policy, but if more governments in the world put in feed-in- tariffs and gave incentives for the installation of solar panels, and made it a priority to get this change over to renewable energy as quickly as possible we could avoid the worst outcomes that are facing us. If we go on like we are, we will have probably a 3-4 foot sea level rise in this century. Countries like Egypt and Bangladesh could be flooded. Storms in the Caribbean could become more frequent and more powerful –warm water feeds these hurricanes. You could have long storms and not short ones…
We’re playing with fire here, we really are in danger of inflicting massive damage on our world. And as I said, I’m frustrated that this danger, which is undebatable scientifically, is not being given the urgency that is requisite by most countries of the world.
RM: What’s going on with the US right now? [Some talk about it having become a totalitarian society.]
JC: I wouldn’t call it a totalitarian society just because I think there are still multiple powers and I think there’s still a place for popular mobilization. It’s certainly the case that about half of the American economy is dominated by about 2000 corporations, and that much government policy and legislation is dictated and very heavily influenced by those 2000 corporations.
But it should be remembered that often the corporations themselves have disputes, and that’s an opportunity for the public to leverage one against the other. A lot of the corporations and the US government were not very happy about the rise of the internet, especially what is called ‘net neutrality’. As things now stand, the way the internet is designed, anyone in the world who is on the internet has equal access to my blog, they have the same access to it, for the same price, that they have to corporate sites. Many of the corporations wanted to have the internet scaled so that it was easy and inexpensive to reach corporate sites, but difficult and expensive to reach an individual site like my own. So there was an attack on the principle of net neutrality. And Google and other internet companies that are quite large and powerful, and who depend on net neutrality for their profits, intervened on this debate and so saved net neutrality.
I just gave that as an example where corporate interests are not universal among the corporations, there are fights amongst them, and the internet activists –the bloggers and so forth— were able to rally and get Google on our side, so at least for the moment we have fought off this threat to net neutrality. And net neutrality in turn is what allows movements like the Tahrir Square in Egypt, or what’s going on in Turkey today… social media allows people to know about the protests because the official media were intimidated into not reporting it.
So, I don’t want to be overly optimistic, because these corporate interests are very powerful, and they do have disproportionate weight in government deliberations and legislation, but I also don’t want to give up hope, and I think individuals, the public, NGOs, civil society, still are diverse enough and in the aggregate have a great deal of power and it can find ways to find allies, at some point maybe with the corporations for certain kinds of political work which are of progressive nature, so a little bit more optimistic, I think.
RM: As a historian, do you see between the post-Cold War world and the post-9/11 world in terms of protest movements?
JC: Personally, I think that since 2008 there’s been a renewed space for social activism. And I think there’s also been a push-back against aspects of neoliberalism, which is the theory that became popular in Washington and London –in particular— that most social work and most economic work is best done and most efficiently done by the market. So instead of having the government award routes to airliners, let the airliners compete to see who’s best at serving a particular route. And this theory of having the market do most of this kind of social and economic work is not completely without virtue, that is to say there were some inefficient monopolies that were harmful to the economy and probably to people that could be attacked in this way. But the theory can also be pernicious, depending on how it’s implemented. It can be bad people. I think education is an example where there are virtually no real state universities left in the US. They’ve all been semi-privatized by this market techniques. It’s shifted the burden of funding education from the state to families, so it has produced massive student indebtedness. So in my view, neoliberalism in the education sector is a huge catastrophe for people. When they applied this theory to the finance sector and try to take off all the regulations (…) it produced the 1997 crash in Asia.
So, I think some of the 2008 crash had to do with neoliberal policies. I think there’s push-back against them. In a number of countries: I think the Tunisian and Egyptian and, to some extent, Libyan and Syrian revolutions all had an element of protest against neoliberal policies, against the privatization of public goods. And while neoliberalism may produce some more efficiency in some areas, the theorists of it don’t pay attention to the distribution of wealth, to what’s happening to people’s incomes, to social welfare… the theory is only about how to arrange things, not about the outcomes. We leftists are worried about outcomes, about how unequal society becomes as a result, what’s happening to the lives of working people.
So, I think Tahrir Square in Egypt was a protest against a formerly socialist government that had become neoliberal, and neoliberalism also provides state elites with opportunities for insider trading and for feathering their own nests and becoming billionaires at the public’s expense, for corruption. So, I think the indignados in Spain, the Occupy Wall Street people in the US and people all over the world are all part of this phenomenon. So, I think we’ve had a whole string in the last four years of anti-neoliberalism mass movements, and (…) sometimes are shaken or even on its own governments, and I think it’s an aspect of what’s happening in Turkey today.
RM: So connecting the dots, the mass movements against neoliberalism, plus the power of corporations, and now these revelations about the capacity of the state to store or record all communications, are you afraid this could be the beginning of a kind of Orwellian world?
JC: Well, the thing we have to remember about Orwell is that he was not in fact predicting the future… he was describing governmental practices that he saw around him in the 1940s. It was an allegory for his own lived reality, not a prediction about what will happen in the future.
I think the dangers that he drew our attention to are there: of government surveillance and abuse, and, I think the over-concentration of capital in too few hands, are very real and that’s a problem that has accelerated in the last 30 years. I think the problem of police states and brutality are also burgeoning, but I just want to signal that actually corporations and governments are a small part of the world, and the vast masses of people far outweigh them. And it is always possible for the people to resist. And, you know, Tunisian and Egyptian governments had entire departments of cyberpolice to try to track and destroy internet activists. But they were overwhelmed… when a certain number of people joined these movements it was just no longer possible to track them or to do anything about them.
I think we shouldn’t underestimate the continuing power and salience of people power. Cumulatively the seven billion people on Earth, each and every individual, together they outweigh the power of the governments and the corporations. And if they organized, if they unite for particular purposes they can often prevail.
Ricky Martínez: As a historian, what would you say is the importance of the study of history? And what are its main challenges?
Juan Cole: Academic historians have a different way of looking at the world than most people because of their training. I think it’s important to understand the techniques of history: one of the things we tend to do is to contextualize, to put things in a context. I think that’s really been one of the reasons that the public and journalists and others have been interested in my blog, because that’s one of the things that I do for people, to give a context.
A lot of journalism is a first draft of history, when you see a report, 25 bombs went off in Iraq today, and how many casualties there were, and the kind of challenge this represents to the government, but they don’t usually say very much about who set the bombs and why and what the background is, and give a 5 or 10 year history on this and who’s been targeted and why and what the specifics are. So all of that context, it doesn’t really have a place in a short newspaper article, but it’s something that people like to have in order to understand better the significance of the event.
Of course it’s not always entirely clear what the context is, but as someone who spent 30 years studying the region, I have a fairly good idea of what the context is, and so that’s one of the things I do.
And then, aside from putting things in context, another thing that historians are attentive to is change over time. And how things that we think of as natural or as eternal, actually can be recent or have changed in significant ways, or even be invented traditions. So things look different if you attend to this element of change over time. If you know that certain institutions have a history, or are new, and people think of them as having always been there, or certain practices which are new and people think of them as traditional.
That’s important, a thing like attitudes toward contraception or abortion… we historians are very much aware that religious bodies had different views of these things 1,000 years ago than they do now, and some people think that they’re really just doctrines or eternal, but they’re not.
RM: Do you think context is dangerous to the powerful?
JC: I think that where officials attempt to avoid context they’re probably engaged in propaganda. So yeah, I think it can be uncomfortable for the powerful. I think history as contemporary historians practice it, this idea of putting things in context and attending to change over time, is subversive. Because the establishment would like you to think that the contemporary order of things has always been like that, that the good society is the one we have. And interrogating this establishment, and how it got to be where it is, and whether it is in fact traditional, and attending to how it’s changed and what the implications of those changes are… all of those things, I think, are subversive in effect, if not in intent.
So, something like the fact that in the US the finance sector has become a much larger part of the economy over the past thirty years that it had typically been before, and what implications that has for the position bankers in society, does it help to explain why no prosecutions were pursued after the 2008 financial crisis? Do we have a new aristocracy? Are we going back to the days of the Medici? So, those are all the questions a historian might ask and they’re very different than the ones that would be asked by disciplines closer to power.
RM: You’ve written a lot on religion. What is the centrality of religion for human beings?
JC: I think part of what human beings are is a search for meaning. I think the history of religions is part of that search for meaning but is not the only way in which meaning has been searched for. I think the great ideologies of the XX century –communism, for instance— were also part of that search for meaning, a search for an understanding of the order of the world, and the development of the relationship of the individual not only to the material world but to the spiritual world, to the world of aesthetics, and affect, and empathy and so forth.
I don’t maintain that the kind of religions that we have known for the past two or three thousand years will always be with us, or that they’re the only way in which meaning may be searched for, but I do think human beings find life difficult if they don’t find it meaningful, so frameworks for exploring meaning are very important to them, and once a framework is developed people become attached to it, it forms their identities, it can become the basis for kinds of politics, it can be a uniting factor or it can be a divisive factor, but I think that truly materialist view of human beings misses a very important dimension of their behavior.
RM: Is there a relation between some religions and economic development?
JC: I don’t think that religion is very much tied to economic development. I don’t think economic development can be typically explained by religion. This is a thesis that Max Weber held and it’s been put forward… it was a way of looking at history in which modern capitalism developed in northern European protestant countries, so what was wrong with the southern European Catholics, that they couldn’t get their act together?
But, in fact, contemporary historians have shut down this theory… they’ve shown ways in which Italy, for instance, was precocious, and had a kind of workshop industrial revolution very early on… those old XIX century ideas about the superiority of the northern protestants haven’t survived close scrutiny.
Of course, things change over time, so there have been moments in which Catholic or Muslim countries have experienced a good deal of growth, and the poor Protestants have been stagnant, so no, I don’t think that religion, or religious civilization or culture, usually explain very much about material life. They can have an impact here and there, but economic development has to do with material culture, with growth and productivity, with the relation between population growth and economic growth, and so forth. Religion usually isn’t much implicated in all of that.
RM: Could you give me a description of how you see the Muslim world, especially the one going from Morocco to Oman? What can you tell me about its relation with what we call the Western world?
JC: Well, I’ve spent my life studying that area that you just delineated. I find in our media, certainly in the US but I think in the rest more generally, that Islam and Muslims are deeply misunderstood, that premises are held about them, and allegations are made about them, that are simply untrue. There are groups in western society that have motivations for which they would like to spread around a Black Legend of Muslims… and that’s one of the things I try to fight back against.
We’ve had in the US instances where Muslim Americans would like to build a mosque in a neighborhood, and in the same neighborhood there are already churches, and opposition has been expressed to this mosque building, and the City Council denied them the permit. And people would come to the meeting and say things like Muslims are commanded to murder infidels, and we don’t want a mosque in our neighborhood because it will be a center for the plotting out of murders. It is simply not true that Muslims are commanded to kill non-Muslims as a matter of course. There are verses in the Holy Book of Islam, the Qur’an, which command the Muslims to defend themselves if they’re attacked, and those verses are then misinterpreted by the Islamophobes.
I think that’s pretty dire. That kind of premise about the Muslims, being false and being alible, could lead to pogroms, it could lead to deprivation of large numbers of people of their civil and human rights.
And of course, at the level of foreign policy these kind of premises operate as well, so the Muslim world is now seen under the rubric of terrorism, but studies show that say if you take the past five years in Europe, Muslims have been responsible for very very little of the terrorism that has occurred, and most of it is done by either far right wing people or by far left wing people of European heritage. So the image of Muslims as disproportionately involved in terrorism in Europe is statistically untrue, and false premises can produce bad policy.
And so I’m concerned to understand the Muslim world, to understand Muslims and Islam in a dispassionate sort of way, not only because I think such understanding is the duty of an intellectual, but also because I think it’s important that intellectuals intervene in policy debates, and not leave them to bureaucrats and politically motivated propagandists.
RM: How is it possible that after so many centuries of interaction, especially in the Mediterranean area, we still have so much mutual ignorance between Islam and the West?
JC: Well, people don’t exchange intimate information very easily. And information typically has been either conserved or excluded. I witnessed this in Lebanon, I found that often the Christian and the Muslim Lebanese didn’t know very much about each other’s religion. I think they deliberately don’t find out about it. So most Muslims don’t really understand the Trinity or basic Christian beliefs, and likewise the Christians didn’t know very much about Islamic history or Islamic norms and values… it’s not a universal ignorance but it was quite widespread. I was taken aback, that here are neighbors in the same building, one goes off to the mosque on Friday and the other goes off to church on Sunday and they’re really ignorant about each other’s beliefs and rituals and values.
So, I think people hide from other belief systems partly because playing with another belief system intimately is uncomfortable, if you have a view of the world which is strongly grounded you don’t wanna hear another narrative about it, it would be a challenge.
RM: You supported the intervention in Libya. Can you explain your position?
JC: I should say that, in general, I’m against imperialism. I consider myself on the left in the US. So I would’ve been very much against the idea of any Western troops going into Libya, troops on the ground. But in the case of Libya, the government was using jet planes and tanks and artillery against largely peaceful crowds of protestors in urban areas. They were sending those tanks and field pieces out on to the desert roads to these other cities, and then using them to make mass murder against their own citizens. So it was logistically and tactically possible to bomb those tanks and weapons depots out in the desert without a great loss of human life. And I think that since the UNSC authorized a no-fly zone and authorized the countries of the world to do what they could to stop this massacre by the government of innocent people, I thought it was the right for the UN to intervene.
When I began supporting this idea, it wasn’t clear that it would become a NATO operation —that’s how it developed. So I think it was relatively successful in the sense that the vast majority of Libyans clearly wanted to throw off their very authoritarian government, and that the world shouldn’t have stood by when it so easily could stop the massacre by the government troops and by mercenaries of this people.
I think in the West it often wasn’t understood that these revolts in the Libyan cities were often led by workers, in Misrata for instance there is a big steel mill and it was the steel workers who ran the barricades. So I’m confused as to why so many people on the left wanted to allow this oil-funded government, a bourgeois government, to massacre workers who wanted their freedom. It just seemed to me that it was the right thing to do.
RM: You’re one of the most respected alternative voices out there. What has been the price you’ve payed for your views?
JC: I don’t consider myself to have suffered in any significant way. Certainly compared to the brave youth in Egypt or Tunisia who went to jail, some of them were tortured, shot… I haven’t suffered anything like that. It may be that I wasn’t offered a job in the Ivy League, or I wasn’t given a position in the American government, but I’m not personally so interested in those things anyway.
The ways in which one is punished for speaking out as an academic in the US is just that certain limits are put on one’s advancement. But most of us who speak out are old hippies and we have a horror of social advancement anyway, so it’s not so serious.
Biographical note: “Only great minds”, wrote Stendhal, “can afford a simple style.” The French writer’s reflection comes to mind when speaking to Juan Cole. From his home at Ann Arbor, Michigan, he talks to us on the phone for more than an hour. His tone is calm, and he takes his time to put his thoughts in order. At the end of the interview, he tells us he’d love to visit Panama, and the conversation goes on for a little longer, touching on more mundane but equally enjoyable topics. It would seem he’s got nothing else to do.
And yet, Cole is one of the United States’ most important intellectuals. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1952, his father’s military career forced him to move to France when he was only two years old. He would spend seven years there, and end up going to twelve different schools in the same amount of years. His life’s instability and its consequences –”traveling so much you keep losing people”, he says—made him seek solace in reading, the first of his great passions.
But it was the 18 months his father spent at Kagnew Station (Asmara, modern Eritrea) that opened him the doors of the civilization he’s devoted his professional life to. “Eritrea is on the fringes of the Middle East, is a mixed Muslim and Christian society, so that’s where I really first encountered the Middle East and the Muslim world”, he explains.
His passion for the Middle East solidified in Beirut, where he spent some time with his family –”rest and recreation” in the military jargon—at the end of his father’s Asmara tour. “I really liked Beirut, I fell in love with it.”, he remembers. Later, while studying his Bachelor’s Degree, he went back for six months to Beirut to conduct a research project. He would return after graduation in 1975, but the country’s Civil War forced him to move to Cairo, where he completed, three years later, a Master’s Degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.
After another year in Beirut, where he worked as a translator at a newspaper, Cole went back to the US, completing his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies in 1984. Since then, his professional life has been attached to the University of Michigan, fist as an Assistant Professor and now as Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History.
Currently, Juan Cole is one of the world’s most respected minds in Middle Easter and Islamic affairs. He’s written several books on these topics –the latest, Engaging the Muslim World, was published in 2009—and authored dozens of essays for academic journals. Furthermore, his command of languages –he speaks Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, French, German and Spanish—has allowed him to translate into English some of the work of great authors like Persian poet Omar Khayyam and Lebanese-American novelist Khalil Gibran. He is routinely interviewed by media from all over the world –from CNN to Russia Today—and he’s written articles and op-eds in some of the most prestigious publications in the planet. He’s even testified before the American Congress, as his testimony was required to better understand the situation in Iraq.
But the medium through which he channels his tremendous intellectual output –he writes almost every day—is his blog, Informed Comment, which has been active since 2002, and has earned several awards and recognitions. It has even been listed among the 100 most widely read blogs on the Internet.
Like every great intellectual, Cole has also been involved in controversies. In 2006, he was nominated to teach at Yale University. His candidacy was approved by the Departments of History and Sociology, but later rejected by the Senior Appointments Committee. Several Yale historians mentioned the “controversial nature” of his blog and his ideas as the main motive.
Five years later, a New York Times journalist reported that a former CIA agent had told him that, during the administration of George W. Bush, the White House had twice ordered the CIA to gather sensitive information on Cole in order to “discredit him.” Surprisingly, Cole gives little importance to these matters. “I only know what was written in the Times”, he says.
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(Published in Spanish at La Prensa of Panama City)