The Michigan Daily: We’ll start with the basics: Why did you become interested in the Middle East?
Juan Cole: My first encounter with the Middle East was as a dependent. In a military family, my father was stationed in Eritrea in Asanara in 1967-68. I was at that time 14, 15 years old and it was a direct encounter with the Islam of Northern Africa. I think that was what initially piqued my interest.
TMD: And how, in a related question, did you then become a history professor?
JC: I was initially in religion and my undergraduate degree was actually in religion. I shifted into history because studying religion in the Middle East, which is where I went to do my graduate work, which is where I went for my master’s degree, was difficult. (Comparative religion) is somewhat frowned upon by the Muslim authorities there and so they offered Arabic studies and history but not religion. So it was really going to the American University in Cairo that shifted me toward history.
TMD: What kind of media role did you play after 9/11?
JC: Immediately after 9/11, of course, all of us in the universities who worked on the Middle East and especially modern Muslim movements were beginning to be sought out by the press for comment but at a relatively low level. The American press system is dominated by professional pundits and think tanks. There are people with agencies who tend to get the media exposure. And the universities, I really think, have been sidelined as places where you find comment on contemporary affairs in the U.S. mass media. But in the wake of 9/11, especially because of cyberspace, a few of us were able to get past the gatekeepers and begin to have a larger profile.
TMD: Do you think academics should play a bigger role in politics and in shaping the public view of current world affairs?
JC: I have to say that I wouldn’t agree with the way you have put the issue. You said “played a role in politics” and “shaping the public perception.” I think that in a democracy, in a republic, all citizens contribute to the process. So certainly I think the idea of an ivory tower is misplaced. I would be unhappy to see universities politicized in the sense that academic research was somehow suborned by big political money so that people’s conclusions are affected by their funding and so forth. But it is also unfortunate that universities, which house a significant amount of expertise, are, as I said, sidelined. You have think tanks in Washington, D.C. that are run often by handfuls of very wealthy individuals that publish books which are not referred and yet they are very widely distributed. Yet there are people in the academies who know quite a lot about the subject whose books run about 500 copies and remain obscure in the public debate. So things are a little topsy-turvy from our point of view.
TMD: What is the audience and purpose of your blog, Informed Comment? Why does it focus on the Iraq war and terrorist groups?
JC: A blog is just a diary, a public diary, so I’ve addressed all kinds of things there and will continue to do so. It reflects my interests and the interests of my readers. I address topics that I know aren’t going to be popular. If there is a lot of public interest in a topic I know about, I can fulfill a responsibility to apply some expertise, which, I think, is an extension of being a professor at a public university. The people in Michigan for whatever reason have taken it into their heads to pay me to tell them things, and so that’s what I’m doing. So the blog began in the spring after 2001 as a direct result of September 11. I had been doing a lot of e-mailing with colleagues and journalists, and initially it was a place where I could archive my e-mail list, and the first entries are of that sort. Over time, however, I actually began making entries on it and it became a medium in its own right and initially the focus was on al-Qaida and the aftermath. When the Iraq war began, of course I was very interested in it. I’m one of the few American scholars who has been interested in Iraq, all along from the time I got into the Middle East field in the 1970s.
TMD: How did your role as a professor and a researcher overlap with your role as a commentator on current world affairs?
JC: Well, I think as a professor and a researcher you’re in a different mode than in public. Research is about balance, about understanding all of the factors that go into making a situation and how they work together. Punditry, very often, is one-sided, and for that reason I think I’m probably not a very good pundit because I try to keep the complexity of situations in view. So I look at it as a different genre – I don’t think it is impossible for a person to do both.
TMD: What role do you believe political beliefs play in a classroom setting?
JC: I think a classroom setting is yet another genre, there are conventions to our discourse in the classroom. Ad hominems are not appropriate to a classroom setting. If someone says “I believe x,” and the response is, “That’s because you’re overweight,” that would be inappropriate, that’s not a classroom discourse. In the same way, I think partisan politics are not part of a classroom discourse, it’s inappropriate for someone to pimp for a particular political party or platform in the context of a classroom discussion, just as inappropriate as the ad hominem comment would have been. I try to handle this issue by focusing myself and my graduate student instructors on causality and context, which is really what history is about. Politics is often about blame – I don’t think blame is very useful as a trope in understanding history. I’m much more interested in what causes things to happen, what effects events have, and what the social and political context of events are.