Juan Ricardo Cole is a public intellectual, prominent blogger and essayist, and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.
Cole was born on October 23, 1952, in Albuquerque, New Mexico while his father was stationed at the nearby Sandia Base. The multicultural atmosphere of Albuquerque at that time was such that a boy with a father named “John” was often given the nickname of “Juanito,” both by local Hispanics and by GIs. “Juan” stuck. Cole’s mother admired Cuban-American actor Desi Arnaz and gave Juan the middle name “Ricardo” in reference to Arnaz’s signature television role on the “I love Lucy” serial as “Ricky Ricardo” opposite comedienne Lucille Ball.
His mother, Laura Katherine Cole née McIlwee (b. 1928), is from a small farming town in northern Virginia (the local post office is Zep). His father, John Herbert Cole (b. 1929), is an electronics engineer from Winchester, Virginia. Both were brought up on farms, both found that life isolated and lonely, and both sought to escape it. His father, who as a teenager chafed at not being able to be part of World War II, joined the army in 1948. He had a posting in Okinawa, returned to the US, met and married Laura, and was sent to Sandia Base in 1952. John H. Cole was to serve in the US military for 20 years, retiring in 1968.
The McIlwees living in northern Virginia’s hills may have come there in the early eighteenth century. A “Mucklewee” from that region served in the Revolutionary War. Presumably they are Scots-Irish and originally Presbyterians. The McIlwees at length intermarried with the more populous German-Americans in the area, and most go to Lutheran Churches now. Laura’s mother, Carrie Bell McIlwee née Rudolph, was from a Lutheran German family that is said to have come to the United States in 1785. There are rumors in the family of a frontier union with a Native American woman. One Adam Rudolph was written up in the Smithsonian Magazine in the mid-19th century for having killed a large mountain lion that had terrorized farmers. They were very small farmers, appear to have done their own farm labor, and more resembled other Appalachian communities in what became West Virginia than they did the rest of Virginia.
The Coles are largely Roman Catholic German-Americans from the Darmstadt region. Georg Cole came to the US in 1830 and settled in Chambersburg, Pa. Around 1870, a branch of the family moved south to Northern Virginia and were big in the lumber business, with later generations turning to dairy farming. John’s father Dennis Cole fell away from the church and married Dove Largent. The Largents were of French heritage, probably Huguenots, and had become members of the Brethren, a peace church.
In 1954 John H. Cole was sent to SHAPE in Paris, France. Juan went to French kindergarten. The family lived there for about 4 years, returning in 1958. The family traveled by automobile in France and in Europe. John visited his brother, Dennis, in Germany. On a trip to Madrid they saw a bullfight. As children, the Cole boys, Juan and Eric Gregory (b. 1954) spoke children’s French with one another as a secret language when they wanted privacy. His mother and the two children visited the US in January-March 1957. On the way back from New York to Bremerhaven, the ship stopped at Casablanca in newly-independent Morocco, Juan’s first visit to the Middle East, age 4. His mother took them on an American Express tour of the city. While there she bought an accordion-style postcard set that had scenes with local color, including a snake charmer with a fearsome-looking cobra, which remained in the family long enough for Juan to remember it.
After a brief posting in New Jersey, John was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1958 and stayed there until 1962. As an enlisted man, John was paid very little and repaired televisions in his spare time. The family lived off-base in Fuquay Springs in a small brick house. Juan could not start first grade until 1959 because his birthday was in October. As a result, he was often the oldest student in his class and typically was looked up to by the others as a thought leader.
In early 1962, John, now serving in the Signal Corps, was posted to a US base near Orleans, France. He went on ahead, leaving the family in Winchester, where Juan finished third grade. Juan remembers being extremely upset, indeed tearful and hysterical, at constantly losing all his friends, first in North Carolina and then in Virginia, every time the family moved. Juan was to go to 12 schools in 12 years.
Juan spent years 9 through 12 (4th through 6th grades) at the La Foret d’Orleans base school. French courses were part of the curriculum, and Cole remembers having to do mathematics in French. The family lived in base housing at St. Jean de la Rouelle, which replicated an American suburb, but often went into the city. Juan remembers fondly the beauty of Orleans, the statue of Joan of Arc, the wonderful French cuisine. Base culture was multicultural, and President Truman had desegregated the army, so Cole had Japanese-American and African-American friends, as well as a best buddy, Alain, a French national. In a way his upbringing in a multi-cultural milieu was more like that common in the US in the 1980s forward, after the Civil Rights movement and the 1965 change in immigration laws, than it was like that of white Americans of the 1950s and early 1960s. Cole’s father, who had close African-American co-workers, supported the Johnson administration and the end of segregation, despite being from rural Virginia.
French television in Orleans in the early 1960s was deadly boring, and Cole read novels for entertainment after finishing his homework in the evenings, becoming a voracious and quick reader, often finishing off a pulp paperback in one sitting. GIs are often science fiction fans, and Cole learned from them to devour Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and other greats of the Golden Age, as well as earlier writers of speculative fiction such as Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is likely that this genre spoke to him, as the son of an engineer often living abroad, because of the way it stresses technological change as a plot device of history and because it strives to highlight wonder and strangeness with regard to affect. Cole also became a comic book fan, and began a collection that included Spiderman #1, which he later gifted to Northwestern University. Of course, he also read the classics, trying to work through some of the great works of literature, and remembers provoking some teasing by showing up at school with Alice in Wonderland in his rucksack, which the other students misunderstood as for smaller children.
Cole experienced the key events of 1960s America from abroad. His mother discovered the Beatles through German labels that had some Hamburg tracks, and Cole became a fan. He remembers his fourth grade teacher distraught and on the verge of a breakdown during the Cuban missile crisis, telling the terrified students to go home and pray the world didn’t end. He felt deeply the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and tearfully penned a grief-filled poem, which he was asked to read to family and friends that evening.
The Coligny Caserne base had two religious services on Sundays, and the Coles went to the Protestant one, where the preachers cycled out every six months or so. Confusingly, some were from liberal denominations while others were evangelicals. Laura taught Sunday school. The Coles were conventionally religious and not evangelicals. Cole read nonfiction young adult books on science and came to believe that religious discourse that could not accommodate scientific findings such as evolution was nonsensical. Since some GIs who had been in Japan married Japanese women, and Cole knew such families, he also developed an awareness of Buddhism. He didn’t think it could possibly be right that only one religion was correct.
By 1965 it was clear that President Charles de Gaulle was going to withdraw from the military part of NATO, and John was posted back to the United States that summer. Shortly before they left, Juan discovered Ian Fleming’s novels, which, let us say, played a role in his transition to adolescence.
The family was in Frederick, Md., in fall of 1965, while John was posted to Ft. Dietrich. Juan remembers being very interested in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, which he followed on the radio. Then the family was off to California, with John undergoing further electronics training there. They spent spring 1966 in Fullerton, a lower-middle class area of Los Angeles. Then they were for one month in Paso Robles, in a trailer home because the posting would be only for a month or so. There was an earthquake, which rather shook the trailer home and sent everyone outside in panic. When they left that summer they drove through the Mojave Desert in a car without an air conditioner, which was excruciating.
In fall 1966, Juan went to the first half of seventh grade in New Jersey, living in Brown Mills, while his father was at Fort Dix.
In March, 1967 John took a posting at Kagnew Base near Asmara, Eritrea, at that time part of Ethiopia. The US had a satellite listening station in a surreal geodesic dome outside Asmara, and John was by that time an E7 sergeant in SatCom, the Satellite Command. The family had been expecting to go instead to Japan, and Juan remembers having tried to learn some basic Japanese, such as the numbers, in preparation. Instead, he would learn some phrases on arrival in Tigre, a North Semitic language related to Arabic.
Being in Africa was an intellectual and cultural revelation for teenaged Juan, who arrived aged 14 and left in summer of 1968 at nearly 16. He for the first time encountered Muslims and mosques. He also encountered the distinctive Coptic form of Christianity, with its many fasting days. He learned to ride on the plateau around Asmara. Eritreans invited the Coles to wedding ceremonies and they ate the spicy food and spongy bread. One could see gnus, and there were lions in the region. Once at the NCO club, young Juan met visiting Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who showed him a chess move.
The Eritrean liberation movement had begun in a small way. Juan remembers once when his class went on a field trip to Keren, rebels were hanging from a pole at the entrance to the city. The family would go for rest and recreation down to the beach at the port city of Massawa (an Arabic-speaking city), and Juan remembers his father hiding money in the car in case there was a rebel checkpoint that tried to hold them up. The beach at Massawa was a great delight, with the Red Sea waters warm at that latitude in the summer. In school, Juan continued to study French literature. Ironically, he found history deadly boring the way it was then taught. He was very interested in current affairs, reading Newsweek, Time and the base newspaper. He once debated the Vietnam War in class and argued that the North Vietnamese Communists and the Vietcong were anti-colonial nationalists rather than being puppets of Moscow or Beijing. He was also very interested in English, and won an award in the ninth grade at Kagnew School for military dependents for his writing. He became editor of the school literary journal and was advised by a GI who had been a journalist, who taught him something about writing concisely and clearly. Among his best friends was Scott Manchester, two years his senior, who introduced him to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Asmara was an Italian colonial city, with broad esplanades, good capuccino, and art deco pastels. Juan heard stories and read about the Italian occupation, 1899-1940s. People recalled that Mussolini’s son, a pilot in the 1936 war with Ethiopia, spoke of how beautiful it was to see an Ethiopian hit by a bomb opening like a rose. People nevertheless still listened to Italian pop music, and one got a little tired of hearing Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” (1958). The contradictions of lingering resentment at the brutality of colonialism, nationalist aspirations, and yet cultivation of the culture of the former metropole were apparent even to a teenager.
Juan was in Asmara during the 1967 Six Days War, and followed it closely. The Yemen Civil War was also raging, and Juan remembers US personnel coming over to Kagnew Base fleeing Sanaa, whose teenagers he got to know, and who told him stories of the civil war. One of his best friends was an Israeli-American and he remembers being deeply impressed by Jewish spirituality.
There is not any doubt that Juan’s deep interest in the Middle East and the Muslim world began as a result of the family’s sojourn in Asmara. When they left in summer of 1968, they stopped over in Beirut. Juan fell in love with the city. He remembers the family eating at a restaurant on swanky Hamra Street, and the waiter writing the orders from right to left. The way the city sloped down to the Mediterranean was breathtakingly beautiful.
On his return to the US, his father John retired at 20 years from the army, and took a job with an electronics firm in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The family lived in Falls Church, Va. for a year, and Juan went to tenth grade at Falls Church High. He remembers debating some of the more conservative students, whose reference point seemed to be the politics of the deep south and whose horizons were decidedly limited despite being near the nation’s capital. He also remembers insisting on religious pluralism and metaphysical relativism to puzzled and outraged Southern Baptists. In summer 1969 the family settled in Sterling, Va., and Juan went to the new, somewhat rural Broad Run High School at Ashburn, Va. for the eleventh and twelfth grades. He, like others of that generation, became interested in the counterculture. He read Gandhi and the beat poets, studied Buddhism and Sufism, and took some high school Spanish to be able to read Jorge Luis Borges and Frederico Garcia Lorca in the original. He took a history class in World History which entranced him. He was graduated in 1971 and was class valedictorian. That summer he had severe tensions with his father because of his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Juan was accepted with scholarships at Princeton and at Northwestern University, but the offer from Northwestern was much more generous and even his Princeton adviser urged him to accept the latter. The Coles were not wealthy and even with the scholarship, Northwestern was pricey for them. Juan had applied to Northwestern in part because his friend from Asmara, Scott Manchester, was there. Juan took a room in the same independent house where Manchester lived, jokingly referred to as Marvin Gardens. The students experimented with drugs and sex all around him, but Juan was instead interested in religious experimentation. He learned Transcendental Meditation and other forms of meditation, and took every course offered at Northwestern on Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, and came to major in the History and Literature of Religions. He joined marches against the Vietnam War and participated in a hunger strike to protest the Nixon administration’s mining of Haiphong Harbor (which collectively punished the civilian population, to which Cole objected on humanitarian grounds).
He studied political philosophy and was interested in critical theory, the New Left, and the Frankfurt School, including Marcuse. His sympathy for workers came to him from his mother, whose family was mostly rural working class, and who was a member of a union while working for a decade as a cashier at Giant Foods in Sterling, Va. Laura Cole disliked nothing so much as news stories of fat cats taking advantage of working folk. But he found the Marxists on campus grim and dogmatic, and was more interested in American progressive traditions with a cultural emphasis. He studied the history of Western philosophy and did an undergraduate course on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. He did undergraduate seminars on the epic (in which he read T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, on structuralism and myth, and on religious ethics and evolutionary psychology.
He was interested in modern literature, and took several years of German so as to be able to read authors such as Goethe and Hermann Hesse. Juan was very interested in Sufism, having become fascinated with the Islamic tradition in Asmara, and was intrigued by the allegations of Idries Shah that Arabic as a language had special advantages for the mystical path. Being in Evanston, Juan in 1972 encountered the Baha’i religion, which has a temple in nearby Wilmette, and embraced it. The Baha’is said they believed in the unity of the world religions, the elimination of racism, the equality of women and men, and world peace — values that resonated with Juan’s own interests and convictions.
He continued, however, with his studies of Buddhism and Sufi Islam, and was always a fish out of water in the often cult-like and anti-intellectual Baha’i community. Individual Baha’is and families were often very kind to him, and he is grateful to them and respects their beliefs. But it ultimately wasn’t for him. It gradually became apparent that most Baha’is do not actually believe in the equality of women and men, excluding women from their elective highest body, the Universal House of Justice, and holding that women have a different function in society than men. Then it gradually became apparent that whatever they privately believed about racism, they were unwilling to take a political stand, as quietists, against Apartheid. Then it became clear that they are no more religious pluralists than Roman Catholics or Muslims, admitting partial truth in other traditions, but insisting that only in their own tradition is the fullness of the contemporary truth manifest. Then it became clear that the Baha’i authorities were not exactly pacifists. The top leadership has a secret cult-like belief in a Baha’i theocracy that will rule the world, rather on the same model as the theory of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that Muslim clergy should replace civil governments globally. Cole gradually lost his enthusiasm for the community and the administration. When he married outside it in 1982, he stopped going to services because his non-Baha’i wife was excluded. He was also increasingly disturbed by the censorship practices imposed on Baha’i writers by the religion’s administration, and refused to submit to them.
(When email lists came along in the 1990s and he was active in Baha’i discussions of the religion’s history and policies, in which he retained an academic interest, and some hopes of reform, and he came to be hated by the fundamentalist leadership. In 1996 they had a high official call him at home and threaten him with being declared a “covenant-breaker,” i.e. a heretic, because of his critical email postings. Baha’is shun “covenant-breakers” and shun people who are in contact with them. Cole was astonished at the narrow-minded and coercive tactics of the administration, and declined to remain in the community. He angrily resigned. He is now not interested in organized religion as a personal matter. Cole was all along an American liberal, and had thought the Baha’is were on his side, which he discovered to be an error, at least with regard to the secretive and duplicitous leadership. His political and social philosophy is rooted in American traditions going back to the Transcendentalists and going forward to Martin Luther King, Michael Harrington, and other progressives, and all along has been.)
In 1973, Juan gifted his extensive comic book collection to the university library and it became the core of an important popular culture collection. He and some other fans, who had a weekly radio program on comic book culture, invited Stan Lee of Marvel Comics to campus, to inaugurate the collection. At several points in his life, Juan has felt the need to abandon some attachment and reinvent himself, to undergo what his friends at college jokingly called ego death and rebirth. His giving up his books and comics in preparation for going abroad was one such moment. His peripatetic upbringing may have contributed to this tendency.
Cole while at Northwestern University won a Richter Traveling Scholarship, which enabled him to return to Beirut for two quarters of the 1974-1975 school year. There, he did research on the Christian-Muslim dialogue movement in Lebanon, which had been sparked by the Second Vatican Council’s recommendations, producing an 8-chapter honors thesis. He interviewed both Muslim and Christian intellectuals, including Charles Malik, who turned out to be a fanatical anti-Muslim. He had begun studying modern standard Arabic in 1972, and continued with Arabic studies, including Lebanese colloquial, that year. In his spare time, he read through much of the work of Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, among other European novelists. Cole also did community development work with the small Beirut Baha’i community, as a “pioneer.” Baha’is had a policy of not proselytizing in the Middle East, so he was not a missionary. He helped with a newsletter. He had many Christian and Muslim friends.
He returned to Evanston in March, 1975, for his final quarter. He won an undergraduate poetry contest at that time. He was graduated summa cum laude.
He had applied to do an MA in religious studies at the American University in Beirut, intending to write on the Lebanese Shiites (one thing his interest in Babi-Baha’i history did was to alert him to the importance of the then little-known and little-studied Shiite tradition in Islam). Cole arrived in Beirut in September of 1975 just as the Civil War was getting started in earnest. He stayed at Penrose Hall on campus, but classes never began. He and the other students watched the “Battle of the Hotels” from campus in fall of 1975, as the Maronite Christian Phalangists engaged in urban battles with the Sunni Nasserists and Palestinians. The administration called the students together and advised them to leave. Juan’s money was in a Beirut bank that had closed up because of the war. Dean of Students Robert E. Najemy arranged for Juan’s parents to send him an airplane ticket to Amman, Jordan. Dean Najemy was later assassinated, a moment of profound grief for Juan. Cole also heard a rumor that the student who moved into his room at Penrose was killed by shrapnel.
Juan briefly visited Cairo, and was impressed with the city’s pulsing dynamism and cultural depth. Then he spent spring of 1976 as an auditor at the University of Jordan, where his spoken Arabic finally became fairly fluent. He did Freshman Arabic and got a local perspective on pioneering 20th century Arabic authors such as Taha Hussein. He finally gave up on returning to Beirut, since the Civil War seemed likely to go on for a while, and applied to the American University in Cairo’s Center for Arabic Studies.
After summer of travel in 1976 (Syria, Turkey, Iran, India), Juan arrived at AUC in September. He did an MA in Arabic Studies/ History. He studied the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet and early Islam, Abbasid poetry, the history of Sufi orders, Muslim jurisprudence, and modern history, with many of the texts Arabic primary sources. Unlike AUB, AUC did not offer a degree in religion, and Juan was therefore constrained to become a historian instead. He did a seminar with SOAS-trained Marsden Jones on the French invasion and occupation of Egypt in 1798-1801, and Jones told him that someone needed to write a good book on the episode that took advantage of the broad range of sources for it. Juan lived in the al-Abbasiya neighborhood near Ain Shams University, which has many Coptic Christians, and made friends with some. He also had many Muslim Egyptian friends, and some from the small, disorganized Baha’i community. He continued to read modern literature in his spare time, including Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Faulkner and Hemingway in English, and Sartre, Raymond Aron and other modern French writers in French. He managed to get back to Beirut in summer of 1977, where he tutored AUB students in Arabic privately. He returned to Cairo, and wrote a long MA thesis on the 19th century modernist, Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi. Two chapters of it were subsequently published. One treated the influence on him of classical Muslim thinkers such as Miskawayh, and of the Greco-Islamic tradition of political philosophy. Another looked at his St. Simonian and Sufi commitments to workers and the poor. He argued that al-Tahtawi has to be seen as a Tanzimat modernist in an Ottoman context, and was loyal to the Ottoman sultan rather than having been an early Arab nationalist. Also, while in Cairo, Cole began studying Persian at the then Iranian cultural center near Cairo Univerisity. He read in the Cairo newspapers at that time about the rise in Egypt of terrorist groups such as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the ‘Excommunication and Holy Flight” cult. Juan was graduated with an MA in June, 1978.
Juan was stubborn, and had regretted being forced to leave Beirut (which he liked), and returned there in summer, 1978. At the time he and others kept thinking that the war was over. He landed a job as a translator for the Monday Morning company. It had a glossy magazine that mixed news with fashion and glamor. It also tried to run an English newspaper at that time. Since the Syrian occupation authorities were not issuing new newspaper licenses, Monday Morning bought the license to a failing Armenian newspaper, and brought out “Ike” (which many mistakenly thought must be a reference to the 1958 US invasion of Lebanon under President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower). Juan spent the hours from five or six in the evening until midnight or one am translating Arabic news wire stories into English and putting them into inverted pyramid form (with the most important information coming first). During his days, he worked through W. B. Yeats and other poets, as well as reading Arab writers such as Kahlil Gibran and Naguib Mahfouz in Arabic. In fall of 1978 there was renewed fighting in Beirut, and sometimes Syrian shelling would knock out the electricity. Juan sometimes had to write by long hand and candle light, in hopes of being able to type the text up and submit it later that night or early morning so that the paper could come out. Artillery pieces called recoilless rifles relentlessly struck fear into him and other residents. Occasionally Syrian censors rejected one of Juan’s pieces, so he had the experience of being personally censored by the Baath Party. He very occasionally wrote original pieces, including a review of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever, attempting to explain its wild popularity in Civil War Beirut.
During the daytime he did some volunteer work at the American University of Beirut Hospital, and saw and heard things, especially concerning killed and wounded children, that he found difficult to deal with. Once when he was walking in Ain Mreisse near the US embassy, mortar fire rained down on its grounds, coming from East Beirut (presumably the Phalangist militia). Juan was still behind a wall in an alley, but hit the ground. The explosions were near and loud enough to give him a ringing in his ears and a headache for days. If he had been two minutes further along in his path he’d have been in the line of fire. At that time in Beirut there was a lot of random sniper fire and machine gun fire in the background, but he and everyone else there went about their lives as best they could. He suspects he had a slight case of PTSD from his time in Beirut.
Juan was in Beirut on February 1, 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran. The city erupted in celebratory fire, and it was clear that the Shiites were mobilizing. Juan had vigorous arguments with leftist friends in Beirut who thought the Iranian revolution was progressive. He disliked the shah’s autocracy, but warned that Khomeini and his colleagues were in fact religious reactionaries, and he believed that their coming to power would be a disaster for Iran. In any case, the prospect of calm in Beirut seemed increasingly remote. He did a community development trip to Senegal and Gambia in February-March 1979, where he helped local Baha’i villages learn to conduct elections. In April, he left Lebanon in despair of its future. His taxi was delayed getting to the airport because it ran into a big Shiite political street procession on the way. Juan spent the summer with his family in Northern Virginia, temping at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Agency.
In September, 1979, Juan began his Ph.D. work at UCLA, living in an apartment in West LA on Barry Avenue. He studied Iran with Nikki Keddie and Amin Banani, Persian literature and Sufi thought with Banani, Egypt with Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, Arabic literature, Ismailism and Muslim Neoplatonism with Ismail Poonawalla, Middle Eastern sociology with Georges Sabbagh, and Indian history with Stanley Wolpert. In the heady early days of the Iranian revolution, he was part of an informal Dawreh or salon on Iranian and Persian subjects. He also began studying Hindi, alongside advanced courses in Persian language. His circle of friends in graduate school were leftists who admired Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, and who provoked him to read in the American progressive traditions. He finished his coursework in 1981.
Juan designed a project on the history of Shiite clerical institutions and had hoped to research it in Iran. The hostage crisis made that impossible. He discovered that similar manuscripts and documents on Shiism survived in North India. He received Fulbright and a Social Science Research Council grants for research in Lucknow and elsewhere in the subcontinent on the Shiite-ruled kingdom of Awadh (1722-1856) that flourished between the fall of the Mughals and the consolidation of British rule in what is now Uttar Pradesh. He spent fall, 1981 at the Berkeley Urdu Program in Lahore, doing intensive Urdu. He traveled in Pakistan, and in November visited Peshawar, where he met Afghan refugees and conversed with them in Persian. In Lahore he met and married the lovely and incisive young attorney, Shahin Malik, his life partner.
He went to Lucknow in January, 1982 and stayed there until the following late fall. After a bout of hepatitis (Shahin nursed him back to health) and a visit to Lahore, he went to Delhi in January of 1983 and stayed there until April. He spent summer, 1983, doing research at the India Office in London. Juan discovered masses of Persian, Arabic and Urdu material for his subject in Lucknow and elsewhere in India, and wrote a history of Shiite thought and practice in Awadh for his dissertation. He deployed a left Weberian approach to theorizing the development of religious institutions and thought, being influenced by Bryan S. Turner. He also attempted to incorporate theoretical insights from the contemporary American sociology of religion, a literature typically ignored by historians of Islam. It was published as “Roots of North Indian Shi’ism” by the University of California Press and Oxford University Press of New Delhi in winter of 1988-89, and received universally warm reviews from major figures in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. He also published two dissertation chapters, on Iraqi Shiism, which had not fit into the book, and later a new piece on the way women shaped Shiite religious practices in Lucknow. He made many friendships in Lucknow and Delhi, with amazingly kind and helpful Indian Shiites, as well as with Sunnis, Hindus, and Baha’is. His account in this book of an 1855 dispute over a holy site in Faizabad between Sunni fundamentalists and Hindus was instanced by Indian intellectuals as background to the 1992 destruction by Hindu fundamentalists of the Baburi Mosque at Ayodhya.
His book on the history of Shiite Islam in the subcontinent was one of only a handful of such detailed studies of this branch of the religion available in English in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Shiite Iran and the Shiites of Lebanon made the point that they were central to the development of the contemporary world.
Michael H. Fisher said in the flagship Journal of Asian Studies,
“Cole’s strong understanding of both Islamic (especially Shi’i) theological developments and social theory (especially from a Weberian perspective) brings great depth to this well-constructed study. His excellent control over the original source materials in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu allows him to go into the heart of the religious rhetoric of the day. Historians of the region of Awadh, of the development of communal identity in North India, of Islam, or of comparative religion, as well as general readers in these areas, will all find much of value in Cole’s book.”
Francis Robinson of Royal Holloway College wrote in Iranian Studies,
“Cole draws several large conclusions from his work. One is, contrary to what several historians of the Iranian ulama in the twentieth century have proposed, that Imami Shi’ism in the nineteenth century was not intrinsically opposed to states ruled by men other than ulama. Awadhi Shi’as looked for a Shi’a ruler. They cursed the Sunni caliphs in public because they lived in a Shi’a realm where taqiyya was not permitted. They often called their ruler a “just king” and played a considerable part in his administration…. it must be understood that a whole new world has been explored and laid before us. The great potential of the history of the Indian ulama has been demonstrated. We welcome the most important book on Indian Islam since Barbara Metcalf’s Islamic Revival in British India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).”
Juan finished the dissertation at UCLA in early summer 1984. He was hired by the University of Michigan as the modern Middle East historian that year, succeeding Richard P. Mitchell, a giant of the field who wrote a pioneering work on the Muslim Brotherhood and who had died of cancer in Cairo in 1983. He began studying Turkish with James Stewart Robinson, essential for the Ottoman background of the modern Middle East. He eventually did some research in Ottoman texts and even a bit in the Prime Minister’s archives in Istanbul.
The University of Michigan in the mid-to-late 1980s was a center for thinking about interdisciplinarity and critical theory. He was invited to join a faculty seminar of historians, anthropologists and sociologists organized by William Sewell and Nicholas Dirks, called Comparative Studies in Social Transformation, which introduced Ann Arbor to postmodernism, critical legal studies, and other cutting edge theoretical approaches. Cole also explored social resource mobilization theory under the influence of U-M sociologist Meyer Zald and U-M graduate Missagh Parsa (who applied it to the 1979 Iranian Revolution).
In 1985-86, Cole was in Cairo, exploring the National Egyptian Archives and the manuscripts of the National Library for a book on the 1882 Urabi Revolt in Egypt on a Fulbright Civilization Grant. Although he had a specialization in Shiite Islam and its branches, Juan was also very interested in the modern Sunni Muslim tradition and has written a great deal about the Sunni Arab world, including two books about Egypt, a book with many chapters about Sunni countries (Engaging the Muslim World), and over a dozen chapters or journal articles about such subjects as Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi’s reformism, Qasim Amin and early “feminism,” the Muslim Brotherhood, printing in the Sunni world, the Taliban of Afghanistan, and so forth.
In Egypt, he and his wife lived in Zamalek and hugely enjoyed Cairo and other cities. He spent his days at the Egyptian National Archives, then housed at Muhammad Ali’s Citadel above the city, or at the Egyptian National Library near the television station along the Nile. He went on to do research on an SSRC grant in summer 1986 in the National Record Office (now the British National Archives) in Kew Garden, London. He returned to Egypt for follow-up research in summer of 1988. The book, Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East: Social and Cultural Roots of Egypt’s Urabi Movement, was published in 1993 by Princeton University Press. This book was more controversial than the first one, perhaps because it treated a political revolt and because it used critical theory in a Middle East field with frankly positivist leanings. It garnered many admirers, but also ran into steep opposition. Tel Aviv historian Ehud Toledano admitted some virtues in it, but objected that it was “Marxist” in orientation. Intellectual historian Donald Reid sharply questioned its premises.
Joel Beinin of Stanford wrote in The Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt:
“Juan Cole’s study of the origins of the ‘Urabi revolt is an exemplary piece of scholarship and interpretation demonstrating an impressive knowledge of the relevant archival and printed records, a wide ranging and supple intellect, and a flare for comparative analysis. It is a significant contribution to overcoming the relative isolation of Middle East historiography from general historical discourse and advances a thought-provoking and original analysis. Contrary to the hitherto leading work on this topic among western historians of the Middle East…
Cole concludes that the ‘Urabi movement of 1881-82 was both a social conflict and a protonationalist struggle (p. 268). The intelligentsia, the urban guilds, and the villagers confronted the dual elite of Ottoman-Egyptians and Europeans, united “not only by material interests . . . but also by a sense of ethnic and territorial solidarity” (p. 271). “‘Urabi seems to have conjured up an Egyptian nativism that, politically, had an element of protonationalism, despite Egyptians’ reluctance to forsake the Ottoman sultan-caliph” (p. 182). This nativism helped “subsume the class differences” within the insurgent alliance, and thus Cole believes that “language, rhetoric, and ideology clearly must be more central to revolution-making than materialists allow” (pp. 283, 284). Though the point about materialism need not be formulated in precisely this way, Cole’s conclusion seems so reasonable that it is worth underlining some ways that it challenges traditional interpretations of Egyptian history. First, while Cole avoids using class in any consistent or rigorous way, he argues that struggle among social strata (or classes) is a useful analytical window into the history of this period. Second, his analysis demonstrates that the history of Egypt in the nineteenth century should not be considered in narrowly national terms. From 1848 to 1882 Egypt was both a province of the Ottoman Empire (ruled by an increasingly autonomous governor) and an informal part of the British Empire, whose proconsuls imagined they faced Muslim insurgents everywhere after the Indian uprising of 1857 and brought their fears with them to Egypt. Third, Cole shows that some of the most prominent nationalist ideologues of this era were people who by many current criteria might not be considered Egyptians at all. Thus, while refuting Western accounts denying the social and protonational revolutionary dimensions of the ‘Urabi movement, Cole’s interpretation is also not easily compatible with prevailing contemporary Egyptian imaginings of the national past.”
James Jankowski wrote in The American Historical Review:
“The wave of social and political unrest that occurred in Egypt between 1879 and 1882 has entered Egyptian historical memory as the “‘Urabi Revolution.” In this book, based on both the new archival material at his disposal and the new perspectives on mass movements developed by scholars in recent years, Juan R. I. Cole questions existing accounts of the revolt that view it as either a descent into anarchy or a case of elite manipulation of the mob. Briefly stated, his view is that it was a deeply rooted social movement, that its origins lay in the profound economic and social changes that Egypt had experienced since roughly 1850, and that its central actors (and thus the primary object of his analysis) were three social groups: “the propertied peasants, the urban guilds, and the intelligentsia” (p. 22)…
The middle chapters are perhaps the most original in the work, dealing with the “long revolution” (much accelerated in the Egyptian case) of the growth of literacy and the development of the print media, the emergence of new political societies articulating an “ideology of dissent,” the political outlook of the urban working class as expressed in guild petitions, and the role of the crowd as manifested in tensions and clashes between native Egyptian workers and a new European working class spawned by economic growth and immigration…
Cole draws on a wide variety of literary as well as archival material to analyze previously unexplored areas of Egyptian social and political history. His specific contribution in this respect lies in the two areas of Egyptian guilds, where guild petitions to the authorities form the basis of an imaginative reconstruction of the political values of Egyptian urban workers, and in a fuller understanding of the dynamics of the ‘Urabi movement itself, where police records allow for a more complete analysis of the social composition of the supporters of the movement than that available in earlier works. Based on both literary and archival evidence, Cole’s case for the importance of guilds and the intelligentsia in the ‘Urabi movement is persuasive. The data on peasants, however, is thinner and does not always bear out the argument of their centrality in the movement. Cole nevertheless offers more than new data. The analysis in each chapter simultaneously uses recent theoretical literature to illuminate the Egyptian case and the Egyptian experience to test recent theory. The theoretical net is remarkably wide: Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, and Jack Goldstone on revolution; Benedict Anderson and Miroslav Hroch on national identity; George Rude, Eric Hobsbawm, and William Sewell on social protest and the crowd; Raymond Williams, Jack Goody, and Robert Darnton on literacy; even James Gleick on chaos theory. These are but a few of those whose perspectives are applied to nineteenth-century Egypt. The discussion of such theories and their relevance to Egypt is never dogmatic and is refreshingly free of the preconceived notions that sometimes confound “country history.” Although the data on Egypt are not always sufficient to develop a conclusive argument, the results are continuously stimulating, about Egypt as well as about recent social theory.”
In spring of 1988, Juan went on an AMPART speaking tour for the US Information Service, which provided everything from jazz bands to novelists and academics to audiences in the Muslim world. Juan gave talks in Arabic in Rabat, Casablanca, Fez and Marrakech in Morocco and in Sanaa in Yemen. He spoke in English in Manama, Bahrain (the history of which he had written about) and in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Back in Ann Arbor, Juan was asked by the editor of Comparative Studies in Society and History, Raymond Grew, to edit a book of articles on the Muslim world that had appeared in the journal. The idea was to have a conference in which revised versions of the articles would be workshopped. The revised pieces, along with new invited ones, would be published as a book by the University of Michigan Press. It appeared as Comparing Muslim Societies (Comparative Studies in Society and History series.) Ann Arbor:University of Michigan Press, 1992.
Jay Spaulding wrote in The Middle East Journal Vol. 47, No. 2 (Spring, 1993), pp. 341-342:
“The editor’s lucid introduction locates the effort within a growing literature of revulsion against Orientalist reductionism, to which nuanced comparative analysis, both within the Islamic world and with relevant external segments of the human experience, is offered as a corrective. The two most significant comparative paradigms employed are those of Max Weber (particularly in regard to the world of ideas) and of Barrington Moore, Jr. and Theda Skocpol (concerning society and economy). Although some readers may prefer alternative paradigms, all will appreciate the analytical coherence among the contributions that is granted by this selfimposed limitation. The term “Muslim” is used as an adjective to mark “ethnicity and broad culture, not necessarily . . . religion” (p. 1).”
Since Juan knew both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam, and both the Sunni and the Shiite branches of it, comparative approaches struck him as very useful in avoiding essentialist generalizations (“Muslims believe X” or “Muslims are X”).
Juan was awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor in 1990. He spent the summer of 1990 in Pakistan, doing research on South Asian Islam, on a grant from the University of Michigan Office of the Vice Provost for Research. He and his wife were in Dubai airport waiting for a flight on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s tanks rolled into nearby Kuwait, and the plane for Europe could not leave fast enough to suit him.
Juan was opposed to the Gulf War in 1990-1991, favoring the use instead of economic sanctions. He was quoted in Newsweek to that effect as the war gathered:
“The worldwide boycott of Iraqi oil is even more damaging to Saddam– ‘It is the only important embargo,’ says former French Defense minister Andre Giraud. Gaining the Kuwaiti oil fields means little if Iraq can’t sell the product. Saddam has also used oil revenues to pay off restive internal factions. ‘If you take away this regime’s ability to throw patronage around, then the next time there are riots, how is it going to deal with it?’ asks University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan Cole.” (“The Case against War,” Newsweek, October 29, 1990).
He was also quoted in “The Gulf War: The International Front Saddam: What’s in a Name?” Los Angeles Times, 13 Feb 1991: 8.
Cole later admitted that he had been wrong in this approach, both because economic sanctions probably could not have gotten Saddam Hussein’s Iraq back out of Kuwait and because the Baath regime manipulated the sanctions so that they mainly harmed ordinary people. But at the time, he still had pacifist leanings. He wrote some opinion pieces for newspapers but could not get them published, for the first time discovering that being the modern Middle East historian at the University of Michigan might be prestigious in the academic world, but that it meant nothing as a credential to newspaper editors. At a town hall televised on Ann Arbor’s community television station, Juan warned that if the US went in to the Gulf militarily, it would ipso facto become the successor to the British Empire in being an imperial power there, and probably would not be able to extricate itself from Gulf affairs in succeeding decades. This intervention, he warned, would bring with it further, deeper entanglements for the United States in a volatile region, making the Middle East central to US foreign policy over time. He explored attempting to get up an anti-war movement, but faculty who remembered the early Vietnam War period warned him that it would be very difficult at that stage. As it happened, the war was short. At a teach-in in spring of 1991, Juan argued that the social inequities between very wealthy Gulf oil monarchies and the poorer but much more populous Arab republics was part of the conflict, angering the students in the audience from the Gulf.
In 1991, Juan was awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities grant for research on Shiite Muslim thought and history. Some of his articles on the esoteric Shiite thinker Sheikh Ahmad al-Ahsa’i (1753 – 1826) of what is now Saudi Arabia were written out of this NEH research. Juan was convinced that Sheikh Ahmad was an important and independent Muslim innovator in mystical thought, and that he had been unfairly associated with the later Babi and Baha’i traditions and so somewhat marginalized in the study of modern Shi’ism. Juan saw some parallels between Sheikh Ahmad’s approach to deconstructing apparent essences and Zen Buddhism. Juan is what William James calls “religiously musical” and can feel as well as understand the attractions of mystical writing, and these explorations in esoteric Shi’ism were not merely an intellectual exercise for him. At the same time, he read more deeply in the literature on the Kabbalah and on postmodern approaches to the study of religion, as aids in understanding Shaykh Ahmad. See e.g., “The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa’i,” Studia Islamica 80 (1994):145-163 and “Individualism and the Spiritual Path in Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa’i,” Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha’i Studies No. 4 (September, 1997)
In the early- to mid-1990s, Juan wanted to stretch his literary wings. In the summers he tried his hand at some fiction writing, and even developed correspondence with an editor who encouraged him, but never quite broke in. He decided instead to translate some Arabic literature. He remembered that when he was studying Arabic in Beirut, he had enjoyed the works of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), from what is now Lebanon, who had come to the US in 1895. He checked out the latter’s Collected Works in Arabic from the U-M library so as to compare the texts to the English translations published by Knopf and others. He was dismayed to find that the translations were riddled with inaccuracies, that the translators deployed in the 1940s clearly did not have a command of the neoclassical Arabic favored by Gibran, and that the English style was abysmal. Gibran, it is true, is an author most often read by people when they are young, but he is an important figure in modern Arabic letters, arguably having introduced the genre of the prose poem into it, and it is a shame for him to be badly and incorrectly translated. In summer of 1992, Juan tried his hand at some of Gibran’s early short stories, which were published as Spirit Brides (Santa Cruz: White Cloud Press, 1993). He had a friend from Los Angeles days, Steven Scholl, who had begun a small publishing house specializing in works of spirituality, and who had had difficulty finding a distributor at the American Booksellers Association conferences. Once the distributors saw the mock-up for the Gibran book, however, they were eager to take White Cloud on.
Publisher’s Weekly praised Cole’s “sparkling prose” in the translation. Juan went on to translate Gibran’s novel, Broken Wings (1912), perhaps the first stand-alone modern novel to have appeared in book form in Arabic. It had an early feminist and reformist theme, protesting arranged marriage and the constraints of often corrupt religious institutions on the individual. He also translated a collection of Gibran’s more mature prose poems, which appeared from White Cloud in 1998 as The Vision. The translations were then licensed in paperback by Penguin for its Arkham division. As background for the translations, Juan researched the history of the Arab-American community and in Gibran’s own context in avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles of early twentieth-century Boston.
In 1992-1995, Juan was asked by the dean to serve as director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. One of the events he sponsored was an exhibit of Gibran’s paintings at the Detroit Institute of Art, which was also backed by the Arab-American community organization, ACCESS. It was a great success and well attended. In 1997, Juan lectured on Gibran as an early Arab-American thinker and artist for the AMPART program in Morocco, speaking in Arabic. While Cole was directing the Center, he sponsored a wide range of talks and conferences in Ann Arbor. He also brought to fruition a Mellon Foundation endowment for Arabic instruction at the university.
In 1995, Juan was promoted to full professor in the Department of History.
During this period he developed an interest in the newly open Central Asian republics, and studied some Uzbek. In 1993-1996, he served on the Middle East committee of the Social Science Research Council, and with Deniz Kandiyoti of the School of Oriental and African Studies organized a conference in Tashkent comparing the colonial and postcolonial periods of the Middle East and Central Asia. Initially they entitled the project “Colonialism and Nationalism in the Middle East and Central Asia,” but Uzbek leader Islam Karimov’s office rejected that rubric. It argued that the Soviet period in Uzbekistan had not been colonial in character, and rejected the term “nationalism” for its ugly fascist overtones in Soviet Russian. The SSRC enlisted the good offices of Vice President Al Gore, who had visited Tashkent, and a compromise was reached whereby the conference was called “Nation-building after Independence.” The conference was held in nice facilities in Tashkent in fall of 1996, and it must have been among the first major academic events sponsored by an American institution in Uzbekistan. Juan managed to make a side trip to see Bukhara, and found that his Persian allowed him to converse with the Tajiks. The proceedings were later published as a special issue of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. While serving on the SSRC, Juan frequently traveled with the committee to the Middle East, where they mentored Ph.D. students in the field. The trips included Istanbul, Sanaa, Tangiers, and Tunis. The committee once had dinner in a restaurant in the World Trade Center in New York.
In the 1990s, the foundation community, mostly based in New York, had become disenchanted with Area Studies (a focus on language, culture and history of a specific part of the world). Many felt that while the study of languages such as Chinese and Arabic was important, these were well established fields and no longer needed foundation investment to anchor them. Others believed that Area Studies was “not producing useful knowledge.” That is, it favored descriptive explorations of another culture rather than big, global generalizations based on quantitative, mathematical research of the sort favored by American political science and sociology. As a result of this shift, the Social Science Research Council lost funding for its area committees, and Juan cycled off the SSRC in 1996.
The rise of email lists and of the World Wide Web had allowed Juan to get back in touch with Baha’i studies in the early through mid-1990s. He was able to trade Babi and Baha’i manuscripts in Persian and Arabic with other afficionados, including other scholars and Iranian-Americans, building up a much bigger private collection than he had had before. He was then able to discuss new discoveries and contexts on email discussion groups. This new access to materials, his researches on the Ottoman and Young Ottoman context of Baha’i thought in the 19th century, and the email discussions resulted in his 1998 book Modernity and the Millennium. Unfortunately neither the discussions nor the academic character of the book were welcome to the fundamentalists in the religion’s leadership. The book appeared a couple of years after Cole had been threatened with being declared a “covenant breaker” and with being shunned, and after he had noisily resigned from the religion. In many ways writing about Babi and Baha’i issues turned out to be unproductive. Few Western academics are interested in minority Iranian religious traditions, and theory coming out of the study of religion has had little resonance in most academic writing. In Iran itself, the Baha’i faith is a taboo subject and Baha’is are persecuted, and as a result most Iranists avoid the subject. And many if not most Baha’is are hostile to academic scholarship on their tradition. So writing such a book was the closest thing to pure scholarship, since it was unlikely to be widely read or discussed by any of the three discourse communities concerned. Merlin Swartz reviewed the book in The American Historical Review, calling it “carefully researched and perceptive” and “reflective and insightful.” Margit Warburg of the University of Copenhagen observed in History of Religions, “Cole analyzes the original writings in Persian and Arabic in their contemporary context of Middle East reform thought and politics, in particular the Young Ottoman movement and dissident governmental circles in Iran. He makes use of a wealth of primary sources in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, and he uses his extensive knowledge of the Baha’i religion and the history of the Middle East to build up an excellent, convincing, and detailed study of intellectual history. Cole wants to “employ microhistory in order to help diversify our image of the region” (p. 14), and he succeeds in giving the reader insight into the little researched area of political reform thought in the Ottoman Empire and in Iran. He also links these ideas with European, in particular French, political and utopian philosophy, noting the parallel between the Saint-Simonians and the Baha’is, with respect to both their ideas and the social position of their followers (pp. 136-37).”
Ervand Abrahamian wrote in the International Journal of Middle East Studies:
“Conventional scholarship views Baha’ism and its precursor, Babism, as intrinsically rooted in traditional Shi’ism-in both Shi’ism’s central doctrines of messianism, millennarianism, and imamism, and its less important features of Neoplatonism, numerology, esoteric knowledge, ecstatic worship, and obedience to religious hierarchy. In short, Babism and Baha’ism have been treated as historic relics from a traditional worldview rather than birth pangs of the modern age. In Modernity and the Millennium, Juan Cole has undertaken the ambitious task of revising this conventional view and arguing the Baha’ism is in fact an important advent of modernity into 19th-century Iran. While pursuing this central theme, Cole pauses at times to make perceptive observations on a number of other relevant issues: Orientalism, notions of Islamic essentialism, parallel developments in other parts of the world, and theoretical works on modernity-especially those of Touraine, Habermas, Giddens, and Bryan Turner. It should also be noted that the book is succinct, highly readable, tightly argued, and thoroughly researched-especially into the writings of Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Nuri (1817-92) better known as Baha’u’llah… Cole shows that Baha’u’llah was in many ways modern. He favored separating the state from organized religion, tolerating religious denominations, forming representative governments, designing a world system that would mitigate extreme nationalism, and limiting patriarchy to improve gender relations. It should also be noted that the Baha’u’llah sharply distanced himself from his predecessors by forthrightly jettisoning the Babi practice of burning non-Babi books and declaring armed jihads against the Shi’i authorities. If the hallmarks of being modern are to accept religious toleration, state-church separation, representative government, and better gender relations, then one cannot but conclude that Baha’u’llah was modern.”
Abrahamian, however, goes on to question this definition of the modern and to insist on the traditionalism and anti-modern characteristics of the Babi-Baha’i tradition. Abrahamian’s critique reflected a generally Marxisant view that had difficulty seeing religion as in any way modern. It is a premise that Juan had all along rejected. Ironically, he felt, it could be argued that religions have adapted to modernity better than has Marxism.
In 1996, as the bicentenary approached of the 1798 invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte, Juan remembered the advice given to him by his professor, Marsden Jones, to write something on the French invasion and occupation of Egypt. He began researching the subject and was pleased to find that some major memoirs had appeared in print in the 1980s and 1990s for the first time. He discovered a wonderful bibliography of eyewitness accounts of the French expedition, and began locating them and working through then. It was to be a decade’s worth of work, during which he tried to set aside Saturdays for note-taking on the memoirs and other relevant material.
Some of his teaching in this period was fun and experimental. He taught an undergraduate discussion course on Orientalism and Film, which attempted to set classic Western films set in the Middle East in the context of its modern history and of Western traditions of depicting Middle Easterners. (It included Gary Cooper’s “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” set in Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier, with a screenplay co-authored by an Indian Muslim.) He thought seriously of doing some research in Hollywood archives on the subject, but subsequent events made other things seem more important to him.
He also taught a series of small classes in the late 1990s on the Mughal Empire in India, and became interested in the potential uses of Mughal miniature painting for historical purposes. He published on the subject, but, again, this road was to be one not taken.
In the mid-1990s, Cole had been asked by the associate chairman of his department to try to develop a large course, since there were not very many offered by the department in the history of the world outside the US and Europe. Juan developed a course on war in the Middle East, which initially tried to cover the impact of war on the region from 1798 through the 1990s. Because he was on listservs concerning Pakistani and Afghan politics, he was aware of the rise of the Taliban, and of al-Qaeda.
After the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in East Africa and the Clinton administration’s missile strike on Khartoum (apparently as a result of bad intelligence), Cole was interviewed by the Baltimore Sun‘s Scott Shane, “Muslim world suffers by actions of terrorists; Radical groups’ hatred for U.S. fed by policy, history of colonialism,” The Baltimore Sun, 23 Aug 1998: 1A:
“Cole says that no mainstream Islamic clergy, from such centers of Islamic theology as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, have issued a fatwa, or religious decree, justifying attacks against Americans.
But Cole says a minority of fundamentalist Muslims, including the terrorist financier bin Laden, seek to impose an Islamic theocracy that imposes rigid standards of belief and behavior according to a literal reading of Islamic law. The ruling regime in Sudan and the Taliban movement that controls most of Afghanistan, the radical ayatollahs in Iran, and the spiritual leaders of Egyptian, Lebanese and Palestinian terrorist movements all hold such views.
Such a radical brand of Islam “has a number of advantages as an anti-imperialist ideology,” Cole says. It automatically excludes non- Muslim foreigners, it gives a theological basis for resistance to existing regimes in Muslim countries, and it appeals to a natural constituency among Muslims, he says.
Even if it remains a distinctly minority phenomenon within the faith, the roots of radical Islam date to the 19th century, when Western colonial regimes brutally suppressed resistance from Muslim natives. Even the U.S. Tomahawk missiles that fell last week had historical precedents in both countries.
“This phenomenon of bombs falling on you from Western countries is not new in these countries,” Cole says. There were three Anglo-Afghan wars, and an Anglo-Egyptian force crushed the nationalist Mahdist state in Sudan in the 1890s.”
Juan began having a lecture on al-Qaeda as the last class of his course on war every year from 1998 onward, since he believed that the US struggle with this organization was likely the next big issue in American foreign policy.
In 1999, Juan was chosen by the executive board of the Middle East Studies Association to be editor-in-chief, through 2004, of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, published by Cambridge University Press. This journal is the flagship of Middle East studies in North America, and received some 120 submissions a year, of which roughly 20 were published. Juan enjoyed working with authors and referees to improve the submissions, a process that produced important scholarship in the journal.
In the late 1990s and very early 2000s, Juan gathered up published and unpublished pieces on the modern history of Shi’ite Islam and fashioned them into a book. It came out from I.B. Tauris in London in 2002 as Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi`ite Islam. It included a number of pieces on the history of Iraqi Shi’ism.
Ali J. Hussein wrote of this book in 2003 in Islamic Studies (Islamabad),
“Cole has accomplished a great deal in this well-researched and well-written work. The topic itself is one that spans centuries and continents. Research of this type requires in-depth knowledge of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Hindi-Urdu and the ability to conduct archival research involving manuscript sources in these languages as well as examination of British, French, and Dutch colonial records. Moreover, the author has employed innovative research techniques to glean information never before gathered from sources such as biographical dictionaries and travel accounts. In composing a work on the politics, culture, and history of Shi’i Islam as expressed in communities from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and from the 16th century to the present day, the author has composed a work of central importance in the study of Shi’ism specifically and Middle Eastern studies in general. “
Richard W. Bulliet of Columbia University reviewed the book in 2004 in The International Journal of Middle East Studies,
“Juan Cole’s history of Shi’ism is the right book at the right time. It is essential reading for anyone– scholar, policy-maker, or concerned citizen– who hopes to follow the next few years of Middle East developments… The profound Sunni bias of Western scholarship on Islam is seldom remarked. A centuries old illusion that Shi’ism is for all intents and purposes an exclusively Iranian matter effectively absolved Arabists of responsibility for learning anything about it. The fact that Shi’i constitute the majority populations in Iraq and Bahrain, and the largest confessional community in Lebanon, should have alerted students of contemporary Arab affairs to the need to inform themselves. The same can be said regarding the political potential of Shi’i minorities in Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. But introductory works on Islam continue to this day to minimize discussion of Shi’ism. The effectiveness of Western master narratives of modern Middle East history in confining discussion of Shi’ism to Iran resulted, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in a snap judgment in both popular and official thinking. Shi’ism was equated with suicidal fanaticism and Sunnism with moderate, sensible Islam-despite the fact that the attack on the grand mosque in Mecca in the same year was carried out by Sunnis led by Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al-Utaiba, a member of a highly regarded Wahhabi family, and despite the fact that the widely read writings of the Sunni thinker Sayyid Qutb advocated a revolutionary violence that went well beyond that of the Iranian revolutionary theorists. Twenty-five years after the Iranian Revolution, American surprise at the power and organization of the Shi’i clergy in Iraq has at last made it clear that a crash course on contemporary Shi’ism in its full breadth is sorely needed. Cole’s book largely fulfills that need. Even though it is composed in part of previously published articles, the flow from chapter to chapter is almost seamless… It is by far the best and most far-ranging account of Shi’ism in the early modern and contemporary periods.
Bulliet went on to urge Juan to find a way to write a more accessible treatment of this important subject for the general American audience. He said, “With the United States embarked on a campaign to transform, by one means or another, a good part of the Muslim world, and with knowledgeable scholars possessing expertise that might shape or curtail misguided aspects of that campaign, it is more than ever incumbent on the Middle East scholarly community to seek an idiom for addressing the ongoing public debate.” Juan tried to take his advice, though Bulliet probably did not envision that the accessible treatment would take the form of a weblog.
The September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda hijackers changed Cole’s life forever. He had with his own eyes seen elements of al-Qaeda grow up in Egypt and then in Pakistan. He gave a press interview on al-Qaeda after the 1998 East Africa bombings and the Clinton administration’s riposte in Pakistan and the Sudan. From that point, the last lecture every year in Cole’s course on the United States and Middle Eastern War was on al-Qaeda. On the morning of September 11, as he watched the aftermath of the attacks on television, Cole began receiving telephone calls from the press, including the Detroit ABC affiliate. Although the local news teams were preempted by the national network the rest of that day, the local news was still put on, and Cole appeared on WXYZ at 11:55 pm with anchor Diana Lewis, and explained that the modus operandi of the attacks pointed to al-Qaeda. Cole was aware that the papers of Ramzi Yousef, captured in Manila in 1996, had contained plans for hijacking airplanes and crashing them into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. He made these statements before the federal government announced that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks.
Cole appeared at a symposium that September sponsored by the Near Eastern Studies Department on the attacks, and pointed out that al-Qaeda was an antinomian organization, not a strictly Muslim one, and that its operatives were known to drink and hang out at night clubs. Cole’s comments, to his surprise, infuriated strong supporters of Israel, who apparently wanted to blame Islam in general for the attacks, and who attacked Cole for having, as they put it, questioned that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks. Cole was even compelled to engage in an exchange on this subject in the pages of the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, with a colleague in the Political Science Department, who appeared to know nothing about the Muslim Middle East.
The main form of online communication among academics at that time were the email list and the email bulletin board. Cole was active on Gulf2000, run by Columbia University Gary Sick, who had been a National Security Council staffer in the Carter and early Reagan administrations. Since Cole had lived in Egypt and Pakistan, and had followed current affairs and politics in those countries and in Afghanistan for many years, he was often in a position to answer questions posed by other Middle East specialists on the email lists. He also had an advantage in being able to read online news reports in Arabic, Persian and Urdu.
Those answers were often thought well of and forwarded to others. Cole was surprised when he began getting fan mail from academics abroad whom he did not know. But some of the fan mail took the form of requests for past messages on al-Qaeda or the Taliban or then Pakistani dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf. In those days, most academics used Microsoft Outlook for email, and it was a hassle to find old email messages and send them out again. Blogging had begun in 1999 with blogger.com, and by the winter of 2001-2002, it was beginning to be a popular medium. Cole, being interested in the internet, followed some of the popular political blogs such as Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish.” It occurred to him in spring of 2002 that a blog might be a place where he could archive his email messages about al-Qaeda. He began Informed Comment in April of 2002, and the first entries were reprinted blog entries. That summer, Cole began making some independent blog entries, especially based on his reading online in the Arabic and other Middle Eastern press.
Cole followed the building war in Afghanistan in fall of 2001 intensively. He foresaw that the Northern Alliance would be able to overthrow the Taliban if the US gave the NA close air support. He explained to one colleague, a Pakistan scholar, in October of 2001 that the air war would be decisive for the Northern Alliance, since the Taliban had no air force and their few tanks and artillery pieces would be destroyed, giving the NA the edge. He instanced the 1967 Six Days War. He remembers that his colleague was angered by the analysis, almost shouting that Afghanistan was not like Egypt. Cole knew that most academics, who seemed willing to expend enormous efforts to understand the latest Parisian critical theory, did not know much about military history. He was not surprised when the Northern Alliance advanced quickly in November and December, and the Taliban were forced to withdraw from Kabul (a largely Tajik city that hated the Taliban).
Cole held that the air war on Afghanistan was necessary because al-Qaeda’s 40 training camps would go on producing sophisticated anti-American terrorists if they were not destroyed. He did not believe that the Taliban would expel al-Qaeda or shut down the bases, and so held that the Taliban would have to go, as well. Cole approved of the US air support and special operations support to the Northern Alliance, because he thought that Afghans would not accept a US conventional invasion or large numbers of US troops on the ground. He was dismayed when the Bush administration gradually did militarily occupy Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, worried that tens of thousands of Western troops would be as unwelcome to the Pushtuns as had been the Soviet troops.
To be Cont’d