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Web Exclusive: A Review of Engaging the Muslim World

Eleanor J. Bader May 14, 2009

Engaging the Muslim World
By Juan Cole
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009

I don’t know University of Michigan professor Juan Cole personally so have no idea how he reacted to President Barack Obama’s early April proclamation that, “The U.S. is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” What I do know is that Cole believes that Islam Anxiety has undermined global security, prompting political decisions that have angered Muslims throughout the Arab world.

Cole’s argument is rational, if sometimes dense and ponderous, and essentially boils down to several key ideas. First, he reminds us that Muslim nations are not ideologically monolithic. Secondly, he argues that the United States needs oil-rich Persian Gulf countries because “petroleum underpins America’s entire transportation system, and thus our way of life…Petroleum makes the world go round, which means that, increasingly, Muslims make the world go round.”

While Cole clearly champions energy independence, he does not believe that alternative energy sources like wind and sun offer short-term solutions. Ultimately, he writes, it will take enhanced “cultural understanding and cooperation” to survive the climate change that is already altering life on earth.

This seems like a no-brainer.

At the same time, Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World realistically assesses the roadblocks that prevent this imperative. By deconstructing numerous Western-world bogeys — the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabism, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and al-Queda, among them — he separates fact from fiction and offers cogent recommendations for U.S. diplomacy.

Take the Wahhabi form of Islam, which became synonymous with terrorism after September 11th. Since Saudi Arabia has adopted Wahhabism, and since 13 of the 19 hijackers — and al-Queda leader Usamah [sic] Bin Laden — hailed from that country, the conflation is understandable, however incorrect.

Cole acknowledges that there is much to criticize in the Saudi’s absolute monarchy: “It does not allow freedom of religion or speech. It discriminates against religious minorities. It imposes strict gender segregation, called gender apartheid by some critics. It represses political dissidents.” But, he continues, critics need to ascertain whether to fault Islam for the oppressive regime, or to instead focus on political ideology. “Since Wahhabi Qatar is not nearly as repressive, it is not evident that the human rights shortcomings lay within that branch of Islam,” he writes. What’s more, since Christians, Hindus and secularists have become suicide bombers in other regions, Wahhabism alone may be too simple an explanation for violent extremism.

Similarly, Cole focuses on Iran and while denouncing President Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, decries the “implausible accusations” that poison Western thought. Central to anti-Iran sentiment, Cole argues, is fear that Persians will militarily menace Europe, Israel and the United States. He blasts this as ridiculous. “Iran’s military budget, at a little over $6 billion per year, is in the same range as that of Norway and Sweden and less than Greece or Singapore. Defense expenditures are smaller per capita that any other country in the Gulf except for the United Arab Emirates.”

Then there’s Israel. “The United States must be as willing to condemn Israel for infractions against international law as it is to castigate Palestinians for violence,” Cole continues. He further urges the new administration to renounce the Bush doctrine of preemptive war; repudiate terms like “Islamofascism” which heighten Islam Anxiety; and do everything possible to foster positive engagement over polarization and war.

In the end, there really is no other choice. As Cole concludes, “The world is facing twin crises: a growing demand for energy and the threat of climate change. They form the greatest challenges humanity has confronted since the Ice Age.” Real engagement, he posits, is the only way to avoid the catastrophic consequences of these pressing concerns.