Interview with Juan Cole

Juan Cole; photo courtesy of Lin Zhang Jones/University of Michigan Photo ServiceJuan Cole is a professor history at the University of Michigan and the author of Engaging the Muslim World. His blog, Informed Comment, is a go-to resource for analysis of U.S. and Middle Eastern policy. Here he talks with FPIF’s John Feffer about Egypt, Islamofascism, and “America anxiety” in the Muslim world.

John Feffer: How will the protests in Tunisia and Egypt alter U.S. public perceptions of the relationship between Arabs and democracy? How will it alter U.S. policy of supporting dictators in the region?

Juan Cole: The interesting thing is, I looked at opinion polls on American attitudes toward, say, Egypt, and interestingly enough, the American public likes Egypt. I think that’s because of years of being told by the press that it’s an ally. Since Egypt’s foreign policy has aligned with that of the United States, I’m not sure that the public will see these developments as positive. The American public takes a lot of cues from its politicians. And we saw Joe Biden the other day question whether Mubarak was a dictator!

I have to say that the U.S. government liked things the way they were, with regard to foreign policy. I’m not accusing the U.S. government of wanting repressive regimes to be there. But they were perfectly willing to cooperate with those regimes. Yes, they would criticize them in the annual State Department human rights report. But the status quo – symbolized by Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali – was perceived to have benefits for Washington. Both Tunisia and Egypt had correct relations with Israel in the 1990s (though Tunisia eventually broke them off). Egypt has adhered to the Camp David accords. We have military cooperation with Egypt; we even conduct joint military exercises. Behind the scenes, Egypt allowed itself to be used for logistical purposes by the United States, even during the invasion of Iraq. Egypt objected to the invasion, but it allowed us to fly material over the country.

John Feffer: The White House recently announced plans to eliminate the color coding warning system created after 9/11 under the Bush administration. Earlier it got rid of the phrase “global war on terror.” On the one hand, it seems to be dialing back the fear. On the other hand, it’s increasing drone strikes in Pakistan? Is this a contradiction?

Juan Cole: Getting rid of the color code was more because it was a scattershot approach. Every time the federal government went on a high alert; the police in Nevada also had to go on high alert. They want to go to a system that allows them to be more targeted in threat assessment so that they don’t have to put the entire country on alert. That would save a lot of money. So, I don’t think it has anything to do with dialing down the fear factor.

The rhetoric of the Obama administration is a lot different from what’s become the mainstream of the Republican Party. But it’s not that different from the George W. Bush administration. Obama justifies being in Afghanistan in terms of destroying al-Qaeda even though the National Security Council admitted that there are only 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. The program of drone strikes in northern Pakistan has increased enormously in the past year. This is something that the administration is very determined about. It is said that the CIA is convinced that it’s having great success in causing enemy attrition. So, in a way, that approach is more robust than what Bush was doing in the tribal belt.

I don’t see anything changing in the next two years under Obama. He’s pretty committed to the course he’s on. A lot depends on whether there’s another important terrorist operation on U.S. soil. If there’s not, then the salience of terrorism in policymaking will decline. People won’t respond to it. If there is, then it’s already been demonstrated that the U.S. government puts a high priority on responding to that kind of threat.

John Feffer: You’ve written that the social problem of violent fundamentalism is a short-term phase like the Baader-Meinhof gang was in Germany in the 1970s. Is al-Qaeda on the way out?

Juan Cole: I think that groups like al-Qaeda or its constituent parts like the Islamic Jihad in Egypt have a history. They grew up in certain situations and are fostered by certain forces. They have their historical moments. Ironically, Osama bin Laden might have written the epitaph for his movement. People gather around a strong horse, he has said, the horse that wins the race. And al-Qaeda and its strategy have clearly been a dead-end. They were a dead-end in the Mideast before they were demonstrated to be a dead-end internationally. One of the achievements the Mubarak regime could point to was that it did take on the Islamic radial movement, and it devastated them. The movement tried to blow up things, shoot people, tourists, all through the 1990s. But by the late 1990s, their methods had made them unpalatable to most of the Egyptian population. The Egyptian security forces had their number. They jailed between 20,000-30,000 Muslim activists. They made it impossible for these radicals to operate, even in an authoritarian and relatively unpopular state like Egypt.

Al-Qaeda mounted the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan and Germany. They wanted to bring down the United States the way they thought they brought down the Soviet Union. But the United States turned out to have more resources than the Soviet Union had, and more staying power. From a practical point of view, it’s difficult to view al-Qaeda’s strategy as anything but a failure.

John Feffer: But the Egyptian state jailed extremists in the past, even executed Sayyid Qutb. And that wasn’t the end of that extremist movement.

Juan Cole: In contrast to Qutb, the people jailed in Egypt in the 1990s tended to be reflective about what happened to them, about whether they were right about shooting down innocent tourists. The Islamic group Gama’a Islamiya actually broke with the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, and the leadership in prison started to issue repentance pamphlets. These are short chapbooks in which they reinterpret their own history and the Qur’an. They argue, at least on a practical basis, for a non-violent strategy. The leadership of the movement was announcing themselves as peaceful activists henceforth.

You might say that this is the only way they think they can get out of prison. Others however have stuck by their guns. So, I think it’s sincere. Most of the people in prison have been released. The hardcore hasn’t been. But basically the radical strain of fundamentalism determined to use violence to deprive the regime of stability and sources of revenue was crushed.

John Feffer: You’ve written that Muslims suffer from “America anxiety,” the perception that America is determined to undermine Muslim religious identity and take resources from Muslim lands. Has this anxiety diminished at all in the Obama era?

Juan Cole: As Obama withdraws from Iraq, one of the major sources of America anxiety is declining, namely the perception during the Bush era of the United States as a grasping, aggressive militaristic force in the region. The successful withdrawal from Iraq will reassure the publics in that region that the United States doesn’t have the intention to occupy a major Arab country forever.

On the other hand, the collapse of the peace process that Obama attempted to initiate between Palestinians and Israelis will not redound to the U.S. credit in the Arab world. That form of America anxiety, which centers on a perceived U.S. unwillingness to pressure Israel to cease its settlement of the West Bank, will continue. And we might see new forms of America anxiety around these mass protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and less so Algeria — to the extent that the United States is a status quo power, that the United States liked things the way they were, that the crowds may see the United States as unhelpful to their political objectives. That would be another black eye for Washington in the region.

John Feffer: The link between the PATRIOT ACT and the global war on terror was clear. What about the connection between overseas contingency operations and the “enemy within” today?

Juan Cole: Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have been careful not to foster the demonization of American Muslims. Certainly the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are vigilant. There’s obviously some domestic surveillance going on, some of it unhelpful because it can include, essentially, techniques of entrapment. This means encouraging small groups to adopt a more radical rhetoric or plan out some act. That kind of FBI entrapment technique, which hasn’t fared well when it goes to the court, is a danger in and of itself. But it seems to be relatively rare. There’s a continuity between the two administrations in this regard.

A lot of the most important tips identifying American Muslim radicals have come from American Muslims themselves. American Muslims have been remarkably well integrated into the mainstream of American society. Every community has its radicals. The situation is very unlike that in the United Kingdom where the Muslim community is clearly alienated by the policies of the mainstream community and the British government. Also, the American Muslim community is socio-economically much higher. According to polling, they are much more fervent in their patriotism.

So, the emphasis of Rep. Peter King (R-NY) who wants to hold congressional hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims is very unhelpful and not in accordance with the reality we know.

John Feffer: Why the controversy this last summer over Park51, the Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, when the organizer of the initiative actually has rather conservative politics? Why did people like Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes choose that target?

Juan Cole: Demagoguery, which is what this is, always focuses on situations where the majority community appears to have advantages over the minority. The attack on the idea of a Muslim community center was launched with reference to the hallowed sacredness of Ground Zero, the target of the September 11 attacks. In mainstream white American consciousness, this could be configured as a form of desecration. It was just a pragmatic matter. I don’t think it had anything to do with the personnel involved. It wouldn’t have mattered if the imam of the proposed community center was a stalwart Republican. They were just using this issue for demonization purposes.

Ultimately people like Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes were driven to demonize Muslims because they believe if they can succeed in making Muslim Americans taboo for mainstream American politics and comment, they can deprive Muslim American of a legitimate voice in the debate. They believe that most Muslim Americans are hostile to Israel, so there are advantages to hardcore supporters of Israel in delegitimizing a group like that. The techniques and rhetoric used in the Park51 campaign is the same as McCarthyism: an attempt to deprive left-of-center Americans a legitimate voice in public affairs.

John Feffer: Have we seen the end of the term “Islamofascism”? Or does this concept still hold sway in influential circles?

Juan Cole: I don’t think the term was ever very popular in most of the State Department. Of course, the people stationed in the Muslim world for the State Department would have been in contact with local people who objected to this way of speaking. But there were elements or are elements in the Pentagon and maybe some in the law enforcement agencies who do want to configure Islam as a successor to the great Central European challenges — communism and fascism — that faced us in 20th century.

If you look at the FBI indictments, when they went after a small sectarian group in Florida (who weren’t even apparently Muslims), the indictments mention sharia and jihad, the doctrine of holy war in Islamic thought. So, whoever wrote that indictment was influenced by this rhetoric around Islam. I don’t think it’s completely gone. But certainly the Obama administration doesn’t talk like that.

However, if you look at the midterm elections, the rhetoric of many of the candidates toward Muslim Americans was quite extreme. I expect the accusation of Islamofascism to resurface in the next presidential campaign. People will try it out as a campaign tactic.

I think the Republican leadership, Rudy Giuliani and others, is committed to demonizing Muslims as a campaign tactic. It worked for them with regard to communism in the old days, and they want to see if they can get a rise out of the American public by demonizing Muslims. It’s just fear-mongering politics as usual.

Juan Cole is a professor history at the University of Michigan and the author of Engaging the Muslim World. His blog, Informed Comment, is a go-to resource for all things Middle East. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.