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on March 30, 2009
According to Dr. Cole's book, US interest in Middle East oil has been motivated by a desire to ensure a stable supply of it to Western Europe and Japan. On the other hand, it is widely believed in the Middle East that American and British oil companies have made huge profits out of Middle Eastern oil while the people of the region, at best, obtain small benefit from it. . When puppet dictators that ensure the flow of oil and petrodollars to western corporations are overthrown, the Americans get very worried. Cole discusses the US overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and the Kennedy administration's "blowtorch Bob" Komer's worries about the threat to American oil companies posed by the Kassem regime in Iraq. Cole notes that Komer was very happy when the Ba'ath party launched its successful coup against Kassem in 1963; the Ba'ath minister of interior later said that the coup was backed by the CIA.

The best part of the book is Cole's attack on American military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Take his analysis of US Iraq policy. What mainstream debate about the "surge" has ignored but which Cole discusses in this book, is that large scale ethnic cleansing is largely responsible for the alleged "success" of the surge. For example, Shiite death squads allied with the Iraqi government cleansed Sunnis out of Baghdad during the surge. Cole writes that Baghdad, in 2003 was 50 percent Sunni; at the end of the surge in 2008, it was 75 percent Shiite. Obviously the elimination of rival ethnic groups from Iraqi neighborhoods has reduced the justification for violence by ethnic militias. The surge dramatically increased the number of internally displaced refugees in Iraq, most of whom live in squalor: the total went from about 1.8 million in January 2007 to 2.7 million in the summer of 2008. Meanwhile about 200,000 Iraqi refugees live in misery in Jordan and another million live in Syria. Cole describes how he discovered, from his own visit to refugee camps and other sources in the region, that many Sunni refugees are afraid to go back to Iraq because they have been threatened with violent retribution from Shiite militias if they try to return to their old homes. Cole's analysis makes clear that the "surge" has not offered any long-term solutions to Iraq's most serious problems.

Cole is also great when he argues against the Islamophobic currents in western societies. He argues that the principles of mainstream Islamic thought going back to the medieval ages are anathema to the ideas of Sayd Qatb, the Egyptian fundamentalist executed by the Nasser regime in 1966 and a leading inspiration for Al Qaeda type ideologies. He argues that it is inaccurate to describe the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a fascist movement. He cites a number of polls to show that all but a very small number of Muslims in the Middle East have any sympathy with Al Qaeda. He warns that the extremely brutal "search and destroy" operations by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can only increase support for violent anti-American Islamists among the affected populations. Meanwhile peasants in southern Afghanistan have had their only source of livelihood, poppy crops, destroyed by US military operations. Cole warns that such actions can only increase sympathy for the Taliban as the US pumps weapons and troops into Afghanistan but disburses only paltry sums for economic reconstruction and alternative crops to wean peasant farmers off the poppy crop.

Cole was one of the first Middle East experts to point out that the allegation that Iranian president Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map was based on a very misleading translation. Ahmadinejad may be a stupid ignoramus but it is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who controls the direction of Iran's foreign and military policies. Cole points out that there is strong evidence that Ahmadinejad has a great many opponents in the clerical establishment in Iran. But the Bush administration did its best to strengthen the most hard-line, reactionary segments of Iran's ruling elite, for example, rejecting the very conciliatory proposal for normalization of relations made by Iran through Switzerland in 2003. Cole notes that Obama, as well as McCain, played up the threat of Iranian nukes during the 2008 election, even though the US National Intelligence Estimate of late 2007 stated that Iran had stopped trying to develop a nuclear weapon in 2003. Iran insists that it is developing a nuclear program for civilian energy purposes only, which it is entitled to do as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Cole cites Jimmy Carter's estimate that Israel has 150 nuclear weapons, so even if Iran developed one nuclear bomb .....Cole points out that the US was sympathetic to Iran's original development of a nuclear program back in the 1970's when its puppet dictator, the Shah, was in power. The Ayatollah Khomeini scrapped the Shah's nuclear program and declared that nuclear weapons were anathema to Islam.

Cole notes that genuine anti-Semitic feeling is not high in Iran; Iranian Jews face some modest cultural restrictions but they are far from being at risk for genocide. Iranian Jews have representation in Iran's parliament; no harm came to Iranian Jewish leaders who wrote to Ahmadinejad to criticize him for his unfortunate comments about the holocaust. Cole points out that several years ago Iranian state TV ran a very popular dramatic min-series about a Muslim male of mixed Persian-Palestinian descent who helps rescue a Jewish love interest from Nazi occupied France.

I may disagree with Cole on a few things but I can't dismiss the great pertinacity of this book in these times when discussion about Islam is primarily directed in this country by ignorant demagogues. Cole has actually lived in the Middle East and is learned in its languages unlike so many "experts" on the region. He presents his ideas in this book with impressive clarity.
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on October 27, 2009
Cole provides a good overview of the Middle East, and does a good job teasing out the difference between Islamic influences, oil influences, poverty influences, and more. He also does a good job of distinguishing hot just between Sunni and Shi'a Islam, but some of the major trends within each, in the different countries of his focus.

Most valuable is his take on Afghanistan and Pakistan. If President Obama DID read this book, he'd not send one more boot on the ground to Afghanistan, would give Pakistan primarily non-military foreign aid, and would rethink other things.

And yet...

First, although Cole touches on poverty here and there, he writes this whole book without touching on the explosive birthrate in the Middle East, surpassed only by some sub-Saharan African countries. If I were the American Prez, "engaging the Muslim world" would start with a frank talk about birth control, which, of course, comes in fair part from empowering women.

That, in turn, is something else Cole glosses over. He talks a bit about patriarchy, but there's no depth.

Second, he's either naive, or whitewashing, with two countries, to various degrees. (And, no, I don't count Iran as one of the two, really.)

They are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Page 83, for example, he accepts at face value Prince Turki's claim that bin Laden chose Saudis for most of his hijackers so as to sour Riyadh-Washington relations. Next page, he flat-out claims that Wahhabism is not a sect, denomination, or whatever within Sunni Islam. Of course, he does that to preserve his "big tent" understanding of Sunni, only saying that the big tent doesn't go that far to the "right." Nonsense. Just as not all Sunnis are fundamentalists, neither are all Christians Pat Robertson, etc. But, SOME Sunnis are fundamentalists, just like some Christians.

Next, Pakistan and its formation. Cole claims Muhammad Ali Jinnah was worried about the tyranny of the Hindu majority in a united post-British India, citing comments by Gandhi as proof. He ignores that Nehru, et al, ignored Gandhi's call for a peasant India, all at the spinning wheel, and that Gandhi himself was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist. He also ignores the complexity of Jinnah's gradual embrace of a separate Pakistan that included selfish political reasons. Cole also doesn't mention that Pakistan originally included, of course, East Pakistan, today's Bangladesh and that, especially there, the issues were much more complex than Hindu-Muslim ones. (Ironic, coming from someone who wants to stress the complexity of "engaging the Muslim world.")

So, Cole can be a good starting point. Just make sure to have several grains of salt handy,
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on February 24, 2011
This is a very thoughtful book of learning how to interact with the Muslim world around us. If we do not take heed of insights that are made in this book, it could continue to be very detrimental for the United States. Cole shows how Americans need to understand not only our own fears, but how the world of the Middle East views the West and why. This is a critical book for any conscious voting citizen as well as anyone making policies and interacting with a world outside their own.
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on August 13, 2009
Cole's writing has an obvious liberal slant, but his deep knowledge and experience living in and studying the Muslim world makes for an enlightening read. He dispels many myths and misconceptions that we hold against Muslim people and Islamic societies. He sheds light on the fears and misbeliefs that exist on both sides - giving the name "Islam Anxiety" to describe our fear of Islam, while also (briefly) describing the "American Anxiety" that many in Middle East feel towards our society and government.
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on November 3, 2010
Juan Cole articulates the mistakes of the younger Bush administration in dealing with the Islamic world effectively in this book. He also presented logically the chokehold that pro-Israel lobbyists hold over the political process in Washington. However, his recommendations are no more than wishful thinking in the current political atmosphere since none of them are likely to be implemented. He has no words on how to overcome the power of the pro-Israel lobby or the political realities in Washington.

The author is way off the mark on his narrative of violence and belligerence by the radical Islam. He is basically glossing over the problems within the Islamic society about their mistaken feeling of being victimized, their practice of committing violence even on ideological and rhetorical issues, their blind support to fellow Muslims even when they were on the wrong and simplifying the terrorism by Muslims as isolated acts of a few misguided. No other society in the contemporary world seem to commit the level of societal violence that Muslims have done whether in Chechnya, Europe, India or Middle East. Muslim intellectuals hardly ever seem to do any introspection over such violence and routinely defend their faith as if they are protecting a brand name. Until such introspection takes place within the Islamic society and they develop a new discourse to live peacefully in the modern pluralistic societies without demanding special privileges, any amount of reaching out to Muslims by others will be seen by all as appeasement. India experienced this first in the modern history by suffering dismemberment of their country.

I was very disappointed that the author accused Mahatma Gandhi of promoting a Hindu theocracy in India while negotiating independence from British (page 161, soft cover edition). I do not think that Dr. Cole is so naive that he would make such a gross mistake out of ignorance and I believe that he twisted his message to oversell his case about Islam. In the process he committed an unpardonable libel on Gandhi which he should retract and apologize for.
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on October 26, 2009
Although it has always existed in some limited fashion, the years since the 9/11 attacks has seen the real rise in a type of popular history genre book regarding America and the Middle East, usually with the implicit question being "Why do those Muslims - particularly Arabs - seem to dislike us Americans?" Juan Cole, an academic with a strong personal and professional background in Middle East Studies, takes his shot at this genre with this book, "Engaging the Muslim World".

The real heart and soul of this book lies in what might be called "myth-busting". Cole makes a number of points to debunk a variety of misperceptions on the Middle East, ranging from the general (how claims of a monolithic "Islam" are nonsense) to the specific (information about the rise of the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia). While he does not really go into serious depth on any of these topics (the book will probably disappoint any readers looking for more extensive information on particular topics on the Middle East), it nonetheless serves as a reasonably good "popular history" for people who are reading with relatively little knowledge about the Muslim World.

The real weakness of this book is that the title is somewhat misleading; whereas Cole has extensive knowledge and discussion on the Middle East as it is and was, he offers little new or specific ideas for improving relations with the Muslim World, beyond the generic ("respect", "don't interfere in their affairs", etc). The book is more or less a popular history of the muslim world (mostly the Middle East, which is Cole's specialty), and it is best to be read as such.

Ironically, this does help in a certain way. One of the weaknesses of the genre is these types of books tend not to age well; their solutions often seem ignorant and foolish in as little as a few years after they were published. By mostly sticking to the history, Cole may be able to avoid that, although his book will never be the match of a particularly focused book on any one of the topics he covers.

I tentatively recommend this book to readers largely ignorant in terms of Middle East history and politics. More experienced readers should stay away, and look out for titles that focus specifically on issues they are interested in.
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on December 21, 2013
As a serious and quite important academic, I expected Cole to write in a serious and academic way. I was elated to find, however, that he speaks to a general American audience, albeit one that is well-educated and thirsting for more knowledge. Cole presents his readers with a detailed yet digestible narrative of U.S. relations with the Middle East and makes very systematic suggestions as to how the U.S. should "engage the Muslim world". Every page startled me with new information and I didn't want to put the book down. I am buying a copy for everyone on my Christmas list (it's a great book for those people who "think" they know about the Middle East).
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VINE VOICEon July 11, 2009
While the title is about "engaging" the Muslim world, the book is actually an issue by issue and country by country report on the news making parts of the Muslim world. It has a concluding chapter on the importance of engagement. Ideas on how this engagement can take place are suggested throughout the book.

Refreshingly, the issue of oil is discussed. If you follow the US news reports, you might reasonably conclude that oil is a side issue. Cole is up front with it and begins his book with the facts of oil availability, dependence and depletion.

While I had accepted it, I was not surprised to learn that Ahmadinejad's quote (actually from Khomeini) "Israel must be wiped off the face of the map" was actually "This Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time". This quote, like so much else in relation to the Middle East, has been broadcast and rebroadcast and quoted in print such that it is accepted as fact in the US.

Another area where Cole gives perspective (where the news media does not) is the actual size of the extremist Islamic population. Like extremists everywhere, these people are a noisy confrontational minority. Cole puts numbers behind this with polling and election results. He also reminds that not long ago concerns about the region focused on the communism and Soviet Union influence, not religion.

Books like this one by Cole are a needed antidote to the sloppy and casual system of journalism in the US. I can only hope that this material is too elementary for policy makers who should know this as background. I highly recommend this book for the general reader and those policy makers who get their understanding of the Muslim world from the US media.
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Juan Cole "drew me in" in the introduction when he said: "But I developed a deep personal dislike of Middle Eastern fundamentalisms (meaning scriptural literalists, who are not necessarily violent), and was more than once inconvenienced or even menaced by them. That I should now be urging understanding of and engagement with a wide range of Middle Eastern political forces, including fundamentalists, signals not an agreement with them but a pragmatic conviction that as citizens of a single globe, we have to settle our conflicts through dialogue." A viewpoint that certainly resonates with mine, since I too have "been there, done that," been threatened, but have come to the same conclusion. I also very much appreciated his next statement that addressed one of my "pet peeves"; journalists publishing "cut and paste" books from their previous works. Cole says that he wrote his perspective afresh, and I found that to be so.

Cole's postulates the reason for the conflict between the West and Islam in the first chapter in true "follow the money" style; it really is all about oil, and the West's dependency on this essential economic lubricant which is controlled primarily by Islamic countries. And this has been going on for a long time. Not only was the CIA responsible for the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, but also the democratically elected government of Shukri Quwatli in Syria in 1949. Although Syria has virtually no oil, the latter coup provided a more amenable government to the "Tapline project," an oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean which would have to pass through Syria.

In the second chapter he delineates Muslim activism from Muslim radicalism. His comparison between the social conditions that gave rise to Mohammad Atta and Timothy McVeigh is an important one, and useful for destroying the pigeon-hole thinking that declares one a "terrorist," and the other a " murderous misfit," or some synonym, as long as it doesn't start with a "t."

Cole's clipped no-nonsense writing style is in basic "primer" fashion, which is, in many ways what this book is, and would be an important read for not only the "interested observer" but also anyone in a policy making or implementing position. His title "overreaches" a bit, since much of the Islamic world, Indonesia, Bangla Desh, Syria, North Africa, are omitted. The remaining chapters focus on some of the most critical countries: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. I lived in Saudi Arabia over a period of a quarter of a century, and although many books on the Kingdom are riddled with errors and out and out fantasies, I found NONE in Cole's account. In fact, that applies to the entire book.

The folly of American actions in Iraq is covered, for sure. Cole's account did not provide me with any new insights that were not covered in Thomas Ricks Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq But I did find fascinating the author's description of the Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is rich and insightful. Cole says that CBS's "60 minutes" made him look more extreme than he is. The author credits "Larry King Live" with doing the best job of presenting him frankly and honestly! Cole goes on to skewer the British Orientalist, and Princeton professor, Bernard Lewis, saying:"Lewis's beliefs about Iran are even more bizarre than Ahmadinejad's about Israel..." Also, as Cole points out, Iran's military budget is on the order of Singapore's, so we need a much more clear-sighted approach instead of trying to shoehorn the Muslim world into the role of the new "Soviet Union."

My main reservation of Cole's account is his citing of opinion polls in Islamic countries without caveats. From my experience, the results are far more problematic than the now well-honed and defined polls in the United States. I'd feel much more comfortable if Cole had been qualifying them with an error rate of "plus or minus five, or even, twenty percent."

Cole's account is current, and does much to debunk the myths and propaganda promoted by those who would prefer endless war against "the other." Humankind once had a hundred or so year war of religion. For those who might consider that one is sufficient, particularly since nuclear weapons could become widely available if the latest one drags on for a hundred years, then this is an account to read, for you and your children. His book is as topical at today's headlines from Egypt. 5-stars.
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on January 8, 2010
Author Juan Cole's purpose is to convince us we should talk to the Muslim world. To do that we need to understand them better. His book helps us understand the richness and diversity of the Muslim world's social and political landscape. Certainly Cole holds a pro-Muslim world bias and he presents some questionable facts, but dwelling on this would be missing the contributions he makes towards promoting dialog over conflict. Cole makes a convincing case on two points.

First, he establishes that there is a real diversity of views, practices, and opinions within the Muslim world and even within major areas of the Muslim world, just as there is in the Western world. For instance there are secular Muslim societies, eg Turkey, as well as religious regimes, eg Iran. There are radical extremists, Al Qaeda of course comes to mind, but there are activist organizations, eg the Muslim Brotherhood, that promote the Islamization of society but through peaceful means only.

Second, Cole argues that the West will gain more influence and benefit from holding dialog than from imposing its will through military might. For example, he decries the military aid to Pakistan and insists that the United States would build more goodwill for itself by building secular schools and thus provide an alternative to the religious schools.

The book opens with as concise a presentation of the problem as I've read. The opening 26 words deserve to be quoted.

"The Muslim World and the West are at a stand off. Westerners worry about terrorism, intolerance, and immigration. Muslims are anxious about neo-imperialism, ridicule, and discrimination."

The book's six chapters then flesh out this position, explaining why this situation arose and proposing meaningful ways to get dialog started in order to end the stand off, or at least to bring tensions down a notch or two.

In chapter one, Cole talks about the Muslim world's influence on oil and energy markets. One of the many specific situations examined explains why Iran has legitimate energy worries that motivate its nuclear research program. Cole opposes an Iranian nuclear solution but he feels the West would build more credibility by acknowledging Iran's need and contributing to alternatives.

Chapter two looks at peaceful Muslim activist movements such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Cole understands the Brotherhood was for a period a terrorist organization but that path has long since been abandoned. There's no question of engaging in talks with Al Qaeda, but the West could only benefit from talking with conservative religious movements when they in fact have significant support within the population.

Chapter three looks at Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi faith and at the tensions between the Saudi regime and religious leaders. Saudi Arabia also has genuine economic problems, eg its tremendous oil revenues cannot be redistributed easily to the people unless there is a healthy economy in place. Throwing loose cash into an economy is a textbook method of getting runaway inflation.

Chapter four looks at Iraq, chapter five looks at Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in both chapters Cole contrasts the Western world's fears and bigotry with the Muslim world's. Again, Cole argues both sides would benefit from talking rather than fighting.

Chapter six looks at Iran and examines closely the Islamic republic's regime as it stood in the summer of 2008. Events have already raced past Cole's analysis but the chapter provides an interesting and informative background to what is going on. Cole presents the current leadership as ultimately in error, as being very unwise and misquided, but strongly urges western leaders to jettison their own prejudices and recognize that the regime isn't completely irrational either.

All in all, Cole does a thorough job of making us realize that we need to rid ourselves of irrational views and prejudices if we want to live in peace. The title says it all: we need to engage the Muslim world, not fight it.

Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
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