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Engaging the Muslim World

March 27, 2009

Washington D.C. – In an effort to identify the causes of, and possible solutions to the growing divide between public opinions in the United States and the Muslim world, Juan Cole discussed his most recent work, Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), at a book launch hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. Assessing the damage on Muslim perceptions of America inflicted by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq of 2003, Cole argued that a withdrawal, albeit slow, of U.S. troops will contribute significantly to improving relationships with the region at large.

engagingmuslimworldA professor of history at the University of Michigan, fluent in several Middle Eastern languages, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Cole tried to extricate the causes of the growing disenchantment with the United States among the Muslim public, despite the many alliances the U.S. entertains in the Middle East and across the Muslim world. Take Indonesia for example, suggested Cole. According to a series of polls conducted over time by the Pew Charitable Trust and Gallup, in 2000 75% of Indonesians held a positive view of the United States. This figure fell to 15% in 2004 and has now regained some ground hitting 37% in 2009, still only half of what it was nine years earlier.

Cole believes that, alongside the languishing stalemate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the occupation of Iraq devised by the Bush Administration is heavily responsible for this dramatic change in attitudes. In Cole’s most conservative estimate, 300,000 Iraqis have been killed during the war, as a result of fighting and infrastructure failures caused by military operations. Not to count the orphans, the widows and the millions of displaced citizens the war left behind. Additionally, scandals like that of the prison at Abu Grahib became major issues for Muslims around the world. “In an effort to curb the insurgency using harsh questioning techniques and torture, the Bush Administration ended up creating huge new numbers of insurgents,” Cole said at the Middle East Institute.

According to Cole, the U.S. needs to accept blame for a sort of idleness, the lack of a prompt and effective response to the deterioration of the situation on the ground (Cole reported that Sweden, for example, without having anything to do with the invasion, has already accepted 40,000 Iraqi immigrants.) Cole holds the American corporate media partially responsible for the some of the disinformation that kept the American people from understanding more about the tragedy that was unfolding. “We are not well served by our corporate media. I don’t think the U.S. public was ever aware of what the Iraq war really was for the Iraqi people,” lamented Cole. TV networks in particular had a tendency to sanitize the war, showing images of the craters that would be left by the bombs, but not of the blood and the corpses and the spare limbs that dominated the scene immediately following the explosion. This imagery, instead, made it regularly on outlets such as Al Jazeera. Because of the sanitization of the more gruesome aspects of the war, Cole believes that the human costs of the U.S. military engagement in Iraq were never fully recognized at home.

As all of this is on the minds of the Iraqis, and of people across the Muslim world, U.S. military presence in Iraq has, according to Cole, become utterly unacceptable. Yet, while polls show a certain amount of support among Muslims for violent retaliation against the U.S. armed forces based in the Middle East, even those who feel more strongly about the issue do not express any desire to ever hit the United States homeland. Mostly what people want is withdrawal, which is good news according to Cole, especially since President Obama seems determined to go through with it. To be fair, Cole did not argue that all Americans must necessarily disappear from Iraq at once, something that those he nicknamed “withdrawal extremists” are calling for. Cole simply claimed that Muslims would welcome a steady and consistent reduction of armed forces deployed in Iraq.

While being extremely critical of the policies of the Bush Administration, Cole also recognized that the situation in Iraq has improved and that U.S. forces exercise today far more command and control then ever before. However, he insisted that the relative stabilization of the country should not be understood as vindicating the invasion. “It would be like saying that, when the black plague began subsiding in medieval Europe, the Norwegian rat had been vindicated,” Call remarked ironically.

Overall, Cole’s present assessment is that Iraq has been building some fundamental capabilities and that there is increasing promise that it might come back together and at least provide for its own security. “I’m somewhat optimistic that Iraq might get its act together and that a U.S. withdrawal could actually be possible without ensuing disaster,” Cole suggested. The one issue that remains unresolved and that could create hurdles in the years ahead is the Arab-Kurd relationship, which is again showing signs of distress. The new American Administration should also be aware that, even in the best-case scenario of a fully recovering Iraq that maintains a positive relationship with Washington, relations between Baghdad and Teheran will continue to be warmer than the U.S. would like. “I think the U.S. will have to suck it up, because the Bush Administration created an Iran that is more powerful in the Middle East than it used to be,” argued Cole. What the U.S. can and should do, according to the University of Michigan’s professor, is to ensure a more hands-on leadership than the previous administration was able to practice. “I hope President Obama and Vice-President Biden will take more active control of what happens including in trying to tackle the case of the Kurds,” explained Cole.

Asked only in the Q&A session his opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Cole did not even try to hide the hopelessness he feels about the situation: “I’m very pessimistic about the conflict. I really don’t see an end to it,” he admitted. Describing the newly formed Israeli government as the “farthest right we have seen in history,” Cole predicted that it could be decades before a solution is reached. Cole foresees three possible scenarios. He finds it unlikely that an agreement will be found on a variation of the two-state solution. Also unlikely, but not as much as one might think, is the apocalyptic view that Israelis will proceed with the expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine, which would trigger a conflict of enormous proportion throughout the region. Finally, and more likely, Cole believes that we are about to witness a long period of, what he described as “apartheid,” which could continue for two to three decades. This would not be a stable long term solution, and it would probably attract increasingly strict sanctions on Israel, maybe not from the U.S. but certainly from the Europeans. But, according to Cole, Israel is really not capable of surviving without trading with Europe and, at some point, the conflict would just end with a one-state solution, where Palestinians will be granted Israeli citizenship. Apparently, one-third of Palestinians already appear willing to accept it, showing that this third scenario might be the more likely, albeit in the very long run.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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