Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Engaging the Muslim World, by Juan Cole

In Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave MacMillan 2009) Juan Cole argues that profound misunderstanding of Muslim countries has led the United States and other Western nations to adopt destructive and ineffective policies. Without substantial change, he sees no hope of rapprochement between the West and the Muslim world, which suffers from its own misunderstanding of the West. He suggests that our tendency to view the Muslim world as monolithic is a fatal error. He reviews the development of British and American foreign policy since before the First World War. Early on he focuses particularly on Western attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which the U. S. government has often identified as a radical organization, when in fact, according to Cole, it is a long established organization whose roots are moderate and based in tradition. He covers in turn Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran. He contends that our current policies have radicalized certain populations in the Arabic world, contributing to the rise of terrorism and hostility towards the U. S. To counter these trends, he advocates that the West should use diplomacy and spend funds to improve education, medical facilities, and social institutions in the Muslim world rather than seeking military dominance.

The first chapter presents one of the best and most succinct accounts I have read as to why reliance on oil will inevitably doom the West and the East, and ultimately the rest of the world, to conflict as fuel supplies dwindle. Cole sees development of solar-based technology as the only long-term solution to the growing need for energy around the globe.

Cole is an intelligent writer and scholar with a strong research background in his subject. His prejudices are clear, however, and what he presents as a matter of scholarship and logic on occasion comes across as polemic or as blithely naïve optimism. Still, his book is a focused and incisive explanation of the political and cultural environment of the most important of the Muslim nations.

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