KGOU

Juan Cole On Misunderstandings About The Middle East

Jul 28, 2017

Though violence related to religion and sectarian identity exists in the Middle East, there are other areas of conflict in the region that are often misunderstood or underreported.

Juan Cole, a historian at the University of Michigan who writes on the blog Informed Comment, says labor issues in Egypt, for instance, have produced some of the biggest conflicts in that country over the past two decades.

“There's an enormous textile industry in Egypt, about 400,000 workers. And if you've got a population of 85 million, 400,000 workers there's a lot of the able bodied workers, largely men. And they have done wildcat strikes. They've done various kinds of strikes. It's been a big saga,” Cole told KGOU’s World Views.

In the second part of an interview with Suzette Grillot, Cole said corporate news media in the United States has largely ignored the subject. Instead, he says the United States largely focuses on religious and sectarian violence.

“If 200 people demonstrated in downtown Cairo tomorrow and we're raising banners about Islam, that would be headline news on CNN,” Cole said.

Cole says the drug war in Mexico since 2006 produces a similar numbers of casualties as the conflict in Iraq. However, he says Mexico was not commonly in the news until then-presidential candidate Donald Trump turned attention to border security and a wall proposal.

“I have this kind of theory, I suppose it could be tested, that the American public is not interested in friendly countries with regard to foreign affairs. They kind of write them off. Not a threat. Don't have to worry about it,” Cole said. “[It’s] kind of the old frontier attitude. You know you don't need to worry about the tribes that you've made the treaties with already and you have peace with them.”

In this respect, a friendly country like Mexico is not a security threat for most Americans.

“So you're looking on the horizon for a peer challenger, or any kind of a challenger. And so who are they interested in? Iran China, Russia,” Cole said.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On American misperceptions about conflict in the Middle East:

The big conflicts in Egypt in the past 20 years, a lot of them have had to do with labor. There's an enormous textile industry in Egypt, about 400,000 workers. And if you've got a population of 85 million, 400,000 workers there's a lot of the able bodied workers, largely men. And they have done wildcat strikes. They've done various kinds of strikes. It's been a big saga and there are some people who have studied this dimension of Egyptian society. I guarantee, you could go to Lexis Nexis as the database for broadcast news and look "Egypt" and "strike" and you would find no items coming from American corporate media about this subject. So this is a big thing for Egypt and for a modern Egyptian society in history, but we pay no attention to what's that's we don't know what you know how many factories are there in Egypt. What's the structure of the economy. What are the problems with the Egyptian textile exports. But people are living and breathing this stuff. But if 200 people demonstrated in downtown Cairo tomorrow and we're raising banners about Islam that would be headline news on CNN.

On brights spots in the Middle East:

If you look at big data, the world is getting better. The United Nations in the 1990s started trying to cut down on absolute poverty, food insecurity and those kinds of things. They've gotten it down from a billion and a half to about 900 million. That's a huge thing in world history to have so few people - still too many - in absolute poverty and this is true in the Middle East as well as in Africa and elsewhere. The number of wars and the number of people killed in wars in the 1960s was much larger than it is today. So maybe we are a little bit pessimistic and looking only on the dark side.

And there are countries in the Middle East, like Morocco, which are very poor but have a good education system and big ambitions. Morocco is going green. They've put in two gigawatts of solar, two gigawatts of wind. They're putting a new hydro and they're hoping in just a couple decades to run their whole economy on green energy. They're one of the more more advanced societies in the world in this regard. That's happening in Morocco, in Morocco, in the Middle East. So there are ... some good news stories out there.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Juan Cole: Well you know there certainly is sectarian violence in the region and sectarian identity is mobilized for political purposes on some occasions. I have to tell you, Suzette, I think a lot of it is in our heads. It's how the way is the way we have decided to put the Middle East under the sign of religion. And you could understand why that might be to some extent, although I think we go wild with it.

Cole: So you know the The big conflicts in Egypt in the past 20 years, a lot of them have had to do with labor. There's an enormous textile industry in Egypt, about 400,000 workers. And if you've got a population of 85 million, 400,000 workers there's a lot of the able bodied workers, largely men. And they have done wildcat strikes. They've done various kinds of strikes. It's been a big saga and there are some people who have studied this dimension of Egyptian society. I guarantee, you could go to Lexis Nexis as the database for broadcast news and look "Egypt" and "strike" and you would find no items coming from American corporate media about this subject. So this is a big thing for Egypt and for a modern Egyptian society in history, but we pay no attention to what's that's we don't know what you know how many factories are there in Egypt. What's the structure of the economy. What are the problems with the Egyptian textile exports. But people are living and breathing this stuff. But if 200 people demonstrated in downtown Cairo tomorrow and we're raising banners about Islam that would be headline news on CNN.

Suzette Grillot: So the issue of it all being in our heads we're obsessed just basically we're suggesting we're obsessed first with the Middle East perhaps in the sense that that is what makes the news there. There are a number of other issues that are happening in Africa and elsewhere that don't make the news. So there's a bit of an obsession on our part with the Middle East and then we tend to focus and perhaps incorrectly on certain aspects of their society and not others. What is it do you have an explanation for this? Is there a way in which we can understand why we do this? Is it just flat out misperception?

Cole: Well the first thing I say is just to underline the point roughly in the past since 2006 until now as far as I can tell the annual death toll in the war on drugs in Mexico was very similar to the annual death toll from the conflict in Iraq. Iraq really really big news. Mexico until a certain proposal was made about a wall, we never heard about it. I mean it's not that the major newspapers like New Times Times or whatever didn't report the war on drugs in Mexico but it wasn't you know in mass media a big thing.

Cole: Well the first thing I say is just to underline the point roughly in the past since 2006 until now as far as I can tell the annual death toll in the war on drugs in Mexico was very similar to the annual death toll from the conflict in Iraq. Iraq really really big news. Mexico until a certain proposal was made about a wall, we never heard about it. I mean it's not that the major newspapers like New Times Times or whatever didn't report the war on drugs in Mexico but it wasn't you know in mass media a big thing.

Cole: But that level of violence was similar to that of Iraq. So where we put our attention in foreign affairs is selective. I'll tell you I have this kind of theory I suppose it could be tested, that the American public is not interested in friendly countries with regard to foreign affairs. They kind of write them off. Not a threat. Don't have to worry about it is kind of the old frontier attitude. You know you don't need to worry about the tribes that you've made the treaties with already and you have peace with them.

Cole: So you're looking on the horizon for a peer challenger or any kind of a challenger. And so who are they interested in? Iran China, Russia now. Countries that seem not to go along with the American consensus about how the world should be run. So Mexico is a friend. Too bad they have those problems. But that's not interesting because it's not a security threat to the average American as they conceive it.

Cole: So I think in the Cold War you know you couldn't have a war with the Soviet Union because of mutual assured destruction and conflicts got displaced then into the global south, into countries where you could have a conflict and there were proxy conflicts. So that's what Vietnam was and one of the places that was in contention and wasn't all locked up, because also like Poland was not an issue, that was a Soviet sphere of influence and it wasn't seriously challenged by the Americans. In great power politics, once a power has established a strong claim to a sphere of influence that tends to be ceded or of course it turns into a war if it's not. But the Middle East was not promised to anybody. So if you think about it it's like a bridal shower. We're all the next brides are coming from. That was the Middle East. Egypt flipped, kind of tilted towards the Soviet Union the 60s and then it tilted hard towards the United States in the 70s. Yemen was split. It had a communist Yemen and a nationalist Yemen. There were all these places that you could play that chess game of trying to get those people on your side and make them assets in the struggle with the Soviet Union.

Cole: And I think in a way with the rise of terrorism from the 90s. That game has gone on being played. The terms are different. The Soviet Union is gone. But I mean it's really quite remarkable that now what's going on in Syria, what is that? That's a conflict over American and Russian spheres of influence. So that wouldn't have looked strange in the 50s. So I think that's part of it.

Grillot: So those who might say. But isn't it about resources or oil? This is not really the primary explanation here?

Cole: It is in some cases it is. Now there's obviously when you have a geopolitical contest, when the United States is trying to enlist countries as assets in its power in the world, its resources are very important. So you know Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. It people there have virtually no civil rights. Bloggers are whipped for writing criticism of the government. There is no no there are municipal elections which are not very extensive in their in their fairness. And then is no parliament. The king, the king's word is law.

Cole: When have we ever heard the State Department come out and denounce Saudi's human rights record? Hear about horrible dictators who do things to their own people, don't let them have freedom and we never hear this about Saudi. Why is because its roughly 10 percent of the world's petroleum is being pumped in Saudi Arabia every day. And if you're a superpower, it's really important that that oil be pumped and go out to allies like France and Japan and so forth. So, sure, petroleum and natural gas are very important in all this. But it's it's it's per case. What what what resources a country brings to the table as a potential asset in this contest depends on the country. So Syria, for instance, doesn't have many hydrocarbons. They were pumping about 400,000 barrels a day before the Civil War broke out. In world terms because the world does you know nearly 100 million barrels a day now, that's nothing. And you know, one fracked field like Bakken in North Dakota would do that. You won't have a war over that. That's ridiculous. And then some people say well they wanted to put a gas pipeline through it. But actually nowadays you you can compress the gas and put it in tubes and ship it called liquefied natural gas. You need to make war over a pipeline route. That's ridiculous. So Syria is not about that. Syria's about other things. Its it neighbors Turkey, it neighbors Israel. And the reason the Russians are really interested, one of the primary reasons, is it became a haven for Chechen rebels from the Caucasus and the Russians are damned if Chechen allies are going to sweep in to Damascus. And for Russia you know Syria's kind of like Mexico to the United States. So its Vladimir Putin looks upon it the same way that Woodrow Wilson looked upon Mexico. There are serious security issues here. So its not about oil with regards to Syria.

Grillot: As so to conclude, Juan, thank you so much for this amazing and so informative review of what we see in the Middle East. But I think the one thing that frustrates many of us is that it's hard to see any bright spots. It's hard to see any any hope in the region. I mean you're you know very eloquent discussion of the Palestinian situation that that there you know where's where's the hope in that? Where's the hope in Syria? Where where's the hope in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, Egypt? I mean so you know as an expert studying the region what would you point us to? Do you have hope in the region? Do you have... Are there any bright spots things we can look to to you know make us feel that they're they will eventually see light at the end of the tunnel? What is it going to take for us to see light at the end of the tunnel here?

Cole: Well regions of the world, it's hard to problemitize it exactly what regions of the world in modern history have gone through periods of great turmoil and then settle down. I think you know if you were living in Europe from 1870 to 1945, what bad thing didn't happen to you? There was the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune and revolution or communist revolutions and two world wars. And I figure they polished off about 100 million people. So there was no end of trouble in Europe in those periods. And then after 45 they settled down for various reasons. So I think that there is this period of turmoil we're going through in the Middle East has some structural underpinnings and that those could be those could change.

Cole: The thing that I would say is if you look at big data the world is getting better. The United Nations in the 1990s started trying to cut down on absolute poverty, food insecurity and those kinds of things. They've gotten it down from a billion and a half to about 900 million. That's a huge thing in world history to have so few people - still too many - in absolute poverty and this is true in the Middle East as well as in Africa and elsewhere. The number of wars and the number of people killed in wars in the 1960s was much larger than it is today. So maybe we are a little bit pessimistic and looking only on the dark side.

Cole: And there are countries in the Middle East, like Morocco, which are very poor but have a good education system and big ambitions. Morocco is going green. They've put in two gigawatts of solar, two gigawatts of wind. They're putting a new hydro and they're hoping in just a couple decades to run their whole economy on green energy. They're one of the more more advanced societies in the world in this regard. That's happening in Morocco, in Morocco, in the Middle East. So there are good some good news stories out there.

Grillot: All right. Thank you so much, Juan, for being here today and sharing all of your insight with us. Thank you.

Cole: Thank you.

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