Like the history that he teaches, Juan Cole’s emergence as a 21st century media phenomenon is the product of convergence. Geopolitics and technology and professional pursuits have combined to transform a once-obscure university professor into an analyst hundreds of thousands of people are turning to as an alternative source of information regarding the war in Iraq.
There was a time not long ago when the opinion pieces Cole submitted to magazines and newspapers would go unpublished. No one had much interest in the insights being offered by this University of Michigan history professor who made study of the Middle East and its religions his specialty.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, America’s subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the evolution of the Internet have changed all that. Now, instead of specialized journals and books little noticed outside the margins of academia, Cole’s writings can be found on the pages of The Guardian, San Jose Mercury News, and The Nation, and in Web publications such as Salon. He’s featured frequently in the electronic media, appearing on CNN, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and National Public Radio.
His Web log, or blog, Informed Comment (juancole.com), has received as many as 250,000 hits a month; last week, the online journal Slate cited it as “a must-read for those interested in the Middle East.” The phone at his Ann Arbor home rings constantly with journalists seeking his expertise. And in April, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Juan Cole and his opinions on Iraq have become a hot commodity. On his blog, he draws information daily from a variety of sources, collecting disparate pieces of a complicated puzzle and placing them together to form a coherent picture.
A 51-year-old specialist in Islamic studies who has “lived all over the Muslim world,” Cole began getting peppered with questions from colleagues on various e-mail lists he subscribed to following Sept. 11. As the author of more than a half-dozen books about Middle Eastern religious sects and the region’s social and political movements, he brought a perspective few Westerners could match.
“Because I was familiar with the terrain from which al Qaeda developed,” he says, “people would ask questions about what was going on and I would try to answer them. My answers were thought well of by my colleagues. My responses would get forwarded very widely. Frankly, I began getting fan mail from places like Denmark. Obviously, there was a lot of interest in what I had to say. People were trying to make sense of the situation.”
Cole relates his trajectory in a matter-of-fact way, with no trace of a braggart in his tone.
As Cole points out, e-mails, by nature, are “ephemeral. You send them and they are gone.” And they have a relatively narrow audience.
By the winter of 2001-02, however, blogging as a phenomenon was beginning to take off, and Cole, who describes himself as “very wired,” was there at the start, ready to ride that technological wave as it began to form.
It was, at that point, a “relatively minor sort of thing,” he explains, nothing more than a hobby. The Iraq war came in the spring of 2003, and he began focusing attention on that. Still, his blog remained relatively obscure. That all changed the following year when, following the capture of Saddam, a “huge pilgrimage from Baghdad to the holy city of Karbala took place. There were thousands and thousands of people flagellating themselves and chanting, and the American media and the American public suddenly said, ‘Who are these people?’”
With one of his specialties being the modern history of Shiite Islam, Cole could answer those questions. Because of his presence on the Internet, journalists, for the first time, began to take notice and turned to him and his Web page as a resource.
A flurry of media appearances occurred, and his blog began gaining wider notice. The site, which would get just a few hundred hits each month when first begun, steadily attracted more readers.
Early on in the war, when optimism ran rampant, Cole saw much reason for concern. Able to read several Middle Eastern languages, he was able to monitor news accounts and opinion pieces from the region online, which, along with his previous studies, provided a depth and breadth of insight few others could match.
“This was something I could not have been able to do in 1990, or even 1995,” says Cole about the availability of Middle Eastern news reports on the Internet. “I could get a level of texture and detail that you could never get from the Western press.”
In fact, he contends, from his desk in Ann Arbor he can obtain a “more thorough review of what is going on in Iraq than most observers on the ground.”
By the summer of 2003, Cole had gained a reputation as a “dark pessimist” at a time when many observers were still expecting victorious troops to be greeted with nothing more dangerous than flower bouquets being lobbed at them.
“As time went on, though, I began getting the reputation of being remarkably prescient,” he says.
Other Web blogs were taking notice and posting links to Informed Comment. And suddenly, instead of having submissions rejected, editors were calling, asking him to write opinion pieces.
“I found out that it is much better when they ask you to write something,” he laughs.
By the spring of this year, with the uprising led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the siege of Faluja — a time when, says Cole, “all hell broke loose” — his site began receiving upward of 250,000 hits a month.
Although that has tapered off some since then, interest remains fervent. Those who log onto his blog receive a mixture of news summary and opinion — something that a person trained to be an “objective” historian doesn’t offer lightly. He worries that offering pointed commentary could damage his academic credibility, but at this point he feels a moral obligation to point out “the very bad foreign policy mistakes” the United States continues to commit.
“The fate of my country is in the balance,” says Cole. “That is more important than objectivity.”
Cole gives the American media mixed marks for its coverage of the war.
“Some are more on the ball than others,” he observes.” I learn a lot from the mainstream media, and I admire the courage of the reporters in Iraq, because anybody who is there is risking their life.”
But coverage is inhibited by a number of factors, not the least of which is a sort of parochialism. Regions of the country where American troops aren’t deployed are routinely ignored, despite the importance of events. Also, Cole sees a tendency on the part of reporters to place undue importance on the official pronouncements coming from the Bush administration — “even though our current president is a profoundly ignorant man who doesn’t have the slightest idea of what’s going on in Iraq.”
Cole sees this tendency to rely so heavily on official sources as a sort of “gullibility.”
As far as television, if the broadcast and cable networks don’t have footage, then stories don’t get covered. As an example, he pointed to a recent incident in the town of Kut, where coalition troops fighting militia received close air support from American planes, which bombed residential neighborhoods. Iraqi officials reported 83 people killed. Except for wire reports, the story went virtually uncovered in the United States.
“Eighty-three people killed,” says Cole. “I think that is significant.”
Asked what he sees as the way out at this point, Cole is at a loss to offer an opinion on how America extricates itself from the quagmire we’ve waded into.
His sense of pessimism remains strong. There is, opines Cole, “a 50-50 chance that, in the next few years,” the Iraqis will rise up and throw us out the way the Iranians did in the late 1970s. If that happens, he fears, chaos could spread throughout the region, with U.S.-friendly regimes such as the one in Saudi Arabia being overthrown in popular uprisings.
That, he says, is a chilling scenario.
“If unrest spreads to Saudi Arabia, if our war spreads to Iran, we could see gasoline prices hit $20 a gallon. That would lead to the de-industrialization of much of the world.”
“We have no idea what we are playing with,” he says. “Things could be very, very bad.”
There is, however, still hope.
“We could also muddle through,” says Cole.
That history remains to be written. When it is, Cole will be among those refining its first draft.Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]