Syria, NSA Spying, Popular Mobilization and History: Cole Interview in La Prensa (Ricky Martinez)

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!


"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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 its 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.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>RM: As a historian, do you see between the post-Cold War world and the post-9/11 world in terms of protest movements?
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>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.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>RM: You’re one of the most respected alternative voices out there. What has been the price you’ve paid 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.


Ricky Martinez
armartinezbenoit a _ t_ gmail d*o*t* com

(Published in Spanish at La Prensa of Panama City)


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