Renowned Middle East expert Juan Cole tried to clarify misperceptions about Muslims and terrorism to a packed house of about 500 people at the Fetzer Center on Wednesday, December 9.
The talk was part of the Department of Comparative Religion's Islam in Global Perspectives speaker series.
The American public remains largely uninformed about the world in general, Cole said, but when it comes to the Middle East, it focuses only on the violence and fundamentalism there. Meanwhile, it overlooks the wave of fundamentalism going on in other parts of the world like India where the far right-wing party just won the elections to govern the 1.5 billion population.
“If this happened in the Middle East, it would be big news,” he said.
Cole also pounced on the media’s record of both perpetuating myths about Islam and the Middle East and its preoccupation with terrorism while it ignores things going on in most other regions of the world.
“Cable news seems to have a tremendous influence on public opinion even though it has small audiences of 500,000 viewers and only two to three million on a good day,” he said.
He pointed out that the climate change conference going on in Paris, which is the most important issue for humankind, wasn’t much covered on cable TV news before Saturday's breakthrough.
“Climate change is simply not in the national conversation,” he said, “but violence in the Middle East makes headlines.”
Likewise, during the late 1990s to the early 2000s, 5.4 million people were killed in the central African wars but the NBC evening news never reported this even though the United States imported several minerals from that region.
The American media doesn’t report much on Europe either, he said, that is until the November terrorist attacks in Paris.
“The attacks were done to polarize people and make Christians want to beat up on Muslims,” he said. “It was meant to trick policymakers, and they fell for it.”
Three days after the bombings President Francois Hollande declared that France was now at war with Islamic State.
“Terrorism is not an act of war,” said Cole. “It is a criminal act of a violent gang. The Paris terrorists were screw-ups from the city’s suburbs. They thought they could infiltrate the stadium in Paris and blow up their belt bombs during the game in order to create an enormous global spectacle.”
Cole explained that only one of three bombers was able to scalp a ticket to the game, and he wasn’t admitted. When the other terrorists realized they couldn't accomplish their goal at the stadium, they went to a Cambodian restaurant and started shooting.
Cole said the terrorists were clumsy and stupid. Even so, one newsman characterized the incident as a “superbly orchestrated military attack.”
“Terrorists aim at psychological attack in order to breed fear and hatred,” said Cole. “Don't fall for these acts of terrorism. You can’t overthrow the French government by attacking a Cambodian restaurant.”
Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, he continued. It is illegitimate and always wrong. Terrorists were not elected to govern yet they commit violence against civilians to push their politics. Cole likened Robert Dear's November attack on the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs as a terrorist’s attempt to change Roe v. Wade.
“So being Muslim is not the issue with terrorism,” he said, “radicalism is. We have this blind spot.”
American politicos' response to the terrorist attacks in Paris was equally reactive when they proposed a change in U.S. refugee policy, he said.
The United States has accepted 750,000 refugees, including many from Afghanistan and Iraq since September 11. Only two refugees were deported for suspected terrorist activity, which involved sending money to Lebanon. Over the past year America has let in 16,000 refugees from Iraq alone.
“Refugees are an upright group of people who are carefully vetted for 18 months,” said Cole, who reminded the audience that the U.S. invasion of Iraq produced these refugees where at least 200,000 Iraqis were killed and 4 million were displaced by U.S. bombings. (He also acknowledged that 4,500 Americans lost their lives in Iraq and over 2,200 in Afghanistan.)
“Where is our sense of social morality?” asked Cole, who said that the United States also refused to let in Jewish refugees from Europe during World War II because it was afraid they were German secret agents.
“The United States is a great country,” said Cole, “but we sometimes have these ugly periods” like slavery, racism and the Know Nothings of the 1850s who tried to stop the immigration of Irish and German Catholics because they regarded these newcomers as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome.
Trying to stop Iraqi and Syrian refugees from coming into the United States feeds the anti-Islamic craze, said Cole. In order to counteract such reactions, he encouraged the audience to become more informed about Islam, to go to a mosque to meet Muslims and to help first generation Muslims integrate themselves into the local community.
“And be active in politics,” said Cole. “Write your congressional representatives. In America, if there is no public voice, you're a sitting duck. The problem is that we vote and then forget about politics. That's when the corporations move in and monopolize the conversation and the policies.”
During the question-answer period, the audience was keen on knowing how to fight terrorism.
“Refuse to be afraid and refuse to hate,” said Cole amid loud applause. “Too many people also fall for the propaganda of Islamic State or Daesh, as it is called. Daesh uses the term ‘Islamic State’ to trick us. They are like a Mexican drug cartel announcing that it’s the Vatican. No journalist would fall for that.”
While the media portray Daesh as conquering vast territories, the reality is that they have overtaken only a few desert towns, said Cole.
“They have no port, no airport and no air force,” he said. “They are not a state but rather a set of desert pirates who loot people and call it taxation.”
When the leader of Daesh called himself a caliph, the Arab people laughed, said Cole.
“What Daesh is really doing is defaming 1.5 billion people.”
Cole emphasized the fact that Iraq and Syria are like the Wild West, and the only place where Daesh can exist.
“To consider them a state is ridiculous,” said Cole.
So, how can Daesh be defeated?
“We have to get the Baghdad government to stiffen the resolve of the Iraqi army,” said Cole. “We also have to realize that while Daesh took 40 percent of Iraqi territory in summer 2014, the Iraqis have since recaptured 25 percent of it.”
Cole also suggested that a free Syrian army must fight Daesh as well as the Saudis who seem more focused on fighting Yemen.
“We sold them our fighter jets,” said Cole, “let’s have a talk with their king and tell him we are not happy with him.”
Cole also agreed with President Obama’s four-point plan that includes:
1. Hunting down terrorist plotters throughout the world and using air strikes to take out Daesh leaders and their infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.
2. Continuing to provide training and equipment to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting Daesh on the ground and deploying Special Operations forces that can accelerate that offensive.
3. Continuing to lead a coalition of 65 countries to stop Daesh’s operations by disrupting plots, cutting off their financing and preventing them from recruiting more fighters.
4. Pursuing cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian civil war so that Syria and all countries can focus on destroying Daesh.
“Daesh is involved in human trafficking, killing POWs and making a spectacle of death,” said Cole. “They are regularly denounced by Muslims.”
Dr. Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of
Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent books include Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East. He has been a regular guest on PBS’s Lehrer News Hour, and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Democracy Now! and many others.
In addition to his extensive writings on Egypt, Iraq, and South Asia, Cole also covers the politics of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran in his regular column at The Nation. Cole continues to study and write about contemporary Islamic movements, whether mainstream or radical, whether Sunni and Salafi or Shiite. He is fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, reads some Turkish, and knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam. Cole is president of the Global Americana Institute, a non-profit project that aims to translate important books by great Americans and about America into Arabic. He has lived in various parts of the Muslim world for some 11 years and continues to travel widely there.