By Juan Cole; Interview by Bassam Haddad


This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.

Bassam Haddad, a prominent Syria specialist at George Mason University, interviewed me this fall for the new web radio program Status Hour , on the Middle East. Do check out the range of important interviews already up at the site.

My own audio interview is here. For those who like to read, I am mirroring below the transcript kindly made by Zachary Cuyler at Status Hour.

Juan Cole, Interview Transcript

Transcribed by Zachary Cuyler

Bassam Haddad (BH): Good afternoon. We have with us here Professor Juan Cole, who has been able to give us some time during his lecture tour—which seems to be consistent and constant. We would like to ask Professor Cole about a few things that are happening now in the media and in the region, starting with the question that is on everyone’s mind, and that is: What is happening in the region right now, in terms of the basic drivers—what would you consider are some of the basic drivers that are producing the outcomes we are all watching on television and listening to on the radio, and so on?

Juan Cole (JC): The post-war governments of the Middle East tended to be Arab nationalist governments. They were deeply influenced by the Soviet model, even though they were not communist regimes, but they called themselves socialist. There were enormous state sectors, public sectors. You know, it was not to the extent of the East[ern] bloc. A place like Hungary probably was ninety-five percent state-owned, the economy. Egypt was probably half, Syria more. In comparison, Nehru’s socialist India was never more than twenty-five percent of the economy, [the] public sector.

So these were socialist states, and their premise was that the colonial powers and often indigenous rulers in cahoots with the colonial powers had produced extremely unequal societies, and had produced societies that were not characterized by healthy social statistics. They were largely rural, villages, they were largely illiterate, the countries lacked infrastructure, they lacked very much in the way of factory production. They were still, for the most part, agricultural and dependent on primary commodities. And these post-war, anti-colonial, anti-imperial states attempted to bring their populations forward. They established mixed school systems, they established high schools, universities, and they really did succeed in making most of the population, at least of the younger generation, at least literate.

And then they did state-led industrialization: they committed resources to making sure that there were factories producing things, substituting those locally-made commodities for international imports.

And then the 1990s came, and the Soviet model collapsed, and Soviet patronage disappeared, and enormous pressure was applied by Washington, London, and Paris on the states of the Middle East to privatize their economies and reduce the size of their public sectors. And in the process of privatizing, new billionaires were created, so it was a little bit like the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the oligarchs in Russia. And neoliberal policies where market mechanisms were instituted, started to substitute for some of the public sector enterprises. But, as we know from Eastern Europe, there are right and wrong ways to privatize, and in the Middle East the state elites engaged in insider trading, they used their advantages to create crony billionaire classes, and because the state elites were not representative. Typically, they were what is called in the Middle East a shillah, or a clique. The inequalities that grew through the 1990s and 2000s excluded often the majority of people living in the country, and those inequalities—regional, ethnic, sectarian, and so forth—they hurt people, they hurt the ability of young people to get jobs, their futures seemed blocked. So you had a lot of regional protest, a lot of labor protest, and what seemed as though they were sectarian protests. But I am arguing that sectarianism was really invoked as a way of objecting to the concentration of wealth in a few hands of a particular social group.

BH: Thank you. Surely, this is not what you would hear in mainstream circles, whether media or academia, sometimes, regarding these political economy factors that are drivers. How do you think someone might respond to this and say, no, this is strictly a cultural issue and what you’re saying is some [. . . sentence ends]. They might even say some Marxist, leftist jargon from a time gone by.

JC: If it is cultural, the culture hasn’t changed that much, so why were these ethnic and sectarian conflicts not big in the 1950s and 1960s? If you go back and read the US State Department cables about a place like Iraq, Shi’i Islam almost doesn’t appear. And concerns about instability owing the Sunni-Shi’i conflict is almost completely absent from those cables of the 1960s and 1970s. The big concern is the strength of the communist movement, the ways in which there were conflicts between poor peasants and big landowners. Now, it may be that sometimes the poor peasants were Shi’a and the big landowners were Sunnis, but that was not ethnicity that they were fighting about, it was the distribution of land and wealth. We saw in Iraq in the 1950s enormous numbers of landless laborers had grown up and maybe 2-3,000 families owned the lion’s share of the good land in Iraq. So the big conflicts were over political economy and I think that has continued.

But whereas in the 1960s and 1970s, it was unusual for those conflicts to be reworked into sectarian or other kinds of primordial identity conflicts, over time this became a fruitful tactic for entrepreneurial politicians. Once you have two groups that are fighting over distribution of material goods—for jobs and resources—it becomes an advantage for politicians if they can mobilize one of the groups against the other on identity grounds.

I think the reason that political economy is not taken into account is that you have to know something fairly serious about economics to understand it, you have to know something serious about the history of these societies in the last fifty years. And, frankly, a lot of our journalists are not trained either in economics or history, or certainly of this region.

And so what is easiest is to fasten upon surface characteristics, though we have the trope of the age-old hatreds. They did this in the Balkans when the Croats and the Bosnians started fighting with each other in the 1990s and the journalists in the United States often attributed it to age-old ethnic hatreds. But the fact is that there is very little difference among the languages. Serbo-Croatian is basically a single language and the big difference among them was religion—the Croats were Catholic and the Bosnians [Muslim] and the Serbs are Eastern Orthodox but almost nobody practices religion so that cannot possibly have been very important. And, in fact, if you look at the history of that region, there was some trouble in the mid-19th century, but for the last hundred years or so, there really had not been much in the way of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. So there is a tendency to essentialize, to see primordial identities as somehow eternal, unchanging, and then as productive of constant conflict, whereas none of those things is true. So I think there is a lack of attention to history, to the fluidity of identity over time.

BH: Thank you. What about, if we want to move from some of the internal dynamics to the external arena, or at least the influence coming from the outside, or the intervention, or the invasion, or the manipulation, what have you, starting with the Iraq-Iran War, which was certainly something that was also in the interest of external powers, and then moving on to the First—or Second Gulf War, according to the people of the region, [the] First [Gulf War] in the United States—then the sanctions and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Can you tell us how these events in this sequence might have produced what everyone is concerned about today—or what many people are concerned about today, especially in the mainstream media—which is that word, ISIS? And how can we put it in a broader context?

JC: Personally, I—with the exception of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which obviously turned that society upside-down in very unfortunate ways—I do not think that the imperial interventions in the region are primarily responsible for these changes. I see them as indigenous. I know that there is a kind of trope out there that Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 at the behest of the Carter administration, but I have talked to members of the National Security Council at the time who deny this, and who say that it came as a surprise to them. Knowing the policies of Jimmy Carter, the idea that he called up Saddam and said “Hey, why don’t you invade Iran” seems a little unlikely. I think later on in the Reagan administration they did send Donald Rumsfeld out, when he was CEO of Searle, to see if Saddam would be willing to do a deal with the United States, and found that he was. So I see the US-Iraqi relationship as close in the 1980s, but I think it really started in 1983.

I think that the invasion of Iran was all Saddam Hussein’s idea, and there were internal reasons for doing it. Saddam was ambitious and he wanted Iranian Khuzistan, which is where the oil is, and wanted to make Iraq a very major player on the world stage. Then, after their revolution in in 1979, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini went on radio and called upon the Iraqi Shi’a to rise up and overthrow the Ba’th party in Iraq. So the Ba’th party felt that the best defense is a good offense and… I do not think that the Iraqi Shi’a would have paid much attention to Khomeini if Saddam had not invaded Iran. And in fact, people say it was a million man army, the Iraqi army, [and] apparently only about forty thousand Shi’i Iraqis defected to the Iranian side. The vast majority of Iraqi Shi’a fought their Iranian co-religionists on behalf of the Iraqi nation. This is why it is so inaccurate for analysts today to see all signs of Shi’i activism as somehow making them cat’s paws of Iran. In fact, a lot of Iraqi Shi’a or Shi’a elsewhere in the region resent Iranian dominance and see themselves as Arabs first or as having local economic or political interests. So I think that while the Americans were drawn into the Iran-Iraq war, I think its impetuses were primarily local, though to some extent the Iranian Revolution itself was a reaction against US imperial dominance of Iran, so the US had a role there.

As for the [Second] Gulf War, that was really a status quo war and in some important respects it was an Arab League war against Saddam Hussein. His invasion and occupation of Kuwait alarmed all of the other states in the world. State elites are very good about protecting the prerogatives of the state, so it was not hard for George HW Bush to put together a coalition that was truly vast. I mean, people now forget that it included Argentina. There was an Iraqi [who was] interviewed who had a sense of humor, who said “Our leader Saddam is very great. He has provoked the entire world—even Argentina is against us.” But the Arab League joined in, [and even] Syria and Egypt were both allies of the Western powers in restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait in that war. So I do not see it as [ . . . sentence ends]. And in fact, it should be remembered that the Bush administration was a realist administration. Realists in foreign policy think you should follow national interest and think that you should not get so worried about injecting morality into politics. James Baker, the Secretary of State at the time, I think genuinely was uninterested in who controlled Kuwait. He thought the oil would be pumped no matter whose hands it was in, and it does not affect the United States’ interests. So, I think that there was resistance to getting involved. It was still the post-Vietnam era: having a war was not popular in the United States.

So I see that whole episode around the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait not in terms of imperial politics, but as, an important part, in a regional response to aggrandization on the part of a “barracuda state”—I think Iraq under Saddam Hussein was what Immanuel Wallerstein calls a ‘barracuda state.’ He [Wallerstein] thinks that those kinds of aggrandizing smaller states that want to become great powers are typical of being on the semi-periphery of the world capitalist system. These are states that are in some way locked out of certain opportunities and resources, and so resort to violence, invasions, big militaries and so forth, and the grabbing of other people’s resources in order to build themselves up to the point at which they could challenge the international system. In the case of Iraq, this barracuda strategy failed because it was too open, it challenged the world system too directly, and it provoked such a powerful, united response—from not only the international powers, but the regional ones—[so] that ultimately Iraq was contained and put under sanctions and its middle class was destroyed.

There, the aftermath of the [Second] Gulf War, I think, is one that was very unfortunate, and for which you could blame US policy, because it was quite ruthless. The sanctions that Iraq was put under by the United Nations and by the United States in the 1990s were the most severe sanctions that had ever been applied to a country up until that point, and they were applied to civilians. And so, since chlorine can be used to make weaponry, it was interdicted as an export to Iraq. But chlorine is essential to water purification. Sewage is such that people’s waste goes into the rivers and we drink from the rivers. Without water purification, the water of the Tigris and the Euphrates became extremely unsanitary, full of bacteria. While adults can survive that kind of thing, they might develop some gastrointestinitis, the children—toddlers and babies—die very easily of bad water. So you probably have excess mortality among toddlers and infants on the order of 500,000 Iraqis who died in the 1990s because of the interdiction of chlorine. That seems to be clearly a war crime, and it was the result of not just US but United Nations sanctions, so the extent to which the world system was willing to go to punish the Iraqi regime spilled over into punishing the Iraqi people.

And that has been a major generator of radicalism in the region. Nobody can stand by and see 500,000 children murdered in this way. You know, a lot of the radical groups mention this as a reason for their anti-US actions, including al-Qa’ida. What al-Qa’ida did is unforgivable, it is a crime, it is a major war crime, but US imperial policy did help to provoke some of this radicalism.

BH: And [as for] the last stage in this series, which is the 2003 invasion, what has been its impact on creating the context in which what we have been observing in the past twelve years or eleven years or so, been? Including ISIS, but not necessarily just ISIS, because as much as possible I think we should probably look beyond [ISIS] because we do not want to fall for this media trap of just being colonized by just talking about ISIS as if there are not other effects or problems.

JC: Yeah, it is quite remarkable that nowadays the only subject that anybody wants to talk about is this formerly small terrorist group, which is only one of a large number of Sunni resistance groups. The Shi’i ones are not being spoken of because they are allies of the United States, even though some of them are quite radical.

I think Iraq was, as a modern state, constructed by the British Empire. There was a set of provinces of the Ottoman Empire constituting Iraq. Occasionally, the Ottomans ruled it as a single province. More frequently they divided it up into several, but the US came into this situation where the Saddam Hussein regime had difficulty keeping the country together. [Phebe] Marr has argued that the Ba’th parties policies in the last part of the twentieth century were really an attempt to make Baghdad and its hinterlands the core of the state. So the state did not have much authority or popularity—and it had none of course after the no-fly zone was established—and it was widely challenged in the Shi’i south and Basra, and so forth. And again, there were also Sunni rebels against the regime. Fallujah had become a center for the Salafi movement under Saddam already, in part under the influence of Jordan. The story is that Jordanian truck drivers, because of sanctions, used to smuggle things in from Jordan. They would stay the night or a few days in Fallujah. Some of them had come under Saudi influences and had become Salafis, so then they spread this ideology to Fallujah. Saddam Hussein’s regime had mixed feelings about this rise of religious politics. On the whole, the Ba’th party did not approve of religious politics, and tried to crush fundamentalist movements. On the other hand, these people became potential constituencies for the state, and so some officials like ‘Izzat Duri, one of Saddam’s vice presidents, actually reached out to some of the religious groups and tried to make them a power base—the Naqshabandi neo-Sufi revival, in Mosul, this was his vehicle. So these [sentence ends]… Iraq was already beginning to be riven by some of these regional and provincial disputes over the distribution of resources. And of course resources had declined enormously over the 1990s because of the restrictions on Iraqi oil exports.

And the US came in and reversed Saddam’s policies. So the late Ba’th tried to insulate the high Ba’th officials and their constituencies from the sanctions, but those were disproportionately Sunni Arabs who were being insulated from the worst effects of the sanctions, so the full brunt of the sanctions were being felt by Basra, Hillah, and the Shi’i districts of Baghdad. In fact, you could tell [that] when the US invaded in 2003, they were expecting the Iraqi middle classes to be allies, and they found there were no middle classes to speak of. This is why you get the rise of radical religious politics—because most people were reduced to slum-dwelling, and those kinds of social and economic situations are not conducive to liberal democracy.

The US favored the Shi’a in exactly the same way that Saddam had begun favoring the Sunni Arabs, and so they engineered not just a political revolution, but a social and provincial one. The Shi’i south became powerful, and expected to be the recipient of the oil money, and the infrastructural improvements, and the political patronage. The Sunni north and west was disenfranchised, for the most part. The US abolished the state factories because they do not believe in state factories, they expected the market and the magic hand of entrepreneurism to replace the state factories, which of course did not occur because nobody knew how to do that, and so they let the state factories be run into the ground after they took over. They acquiesced in the Shi’a nationalists’ program of what they called de-Ba’thification, which was a way of making sure that people who had been in the Ba’th party were excluded from politics and from state employment. So they fired the Ba’th party members who taught in high schools and they brought in Shi’a to replace them. They seem to have fired 70-100,000 people, many of them Sunni Arabs, at a time when there were no private sector jobs, so if you lost your public sector job you were simply unemployed. So the US policy in Iraq was extremely punitive toward the Sunni Arabs, and was openly allied with Shi’i irredentist parties who had a grudge against the Sunnis, and it was allied with the Kurds, who felt that they had been attacked and even gassed by the Ba’th regime, and were also in a mood to punish.

So when they had the first elections in 2005, almost no Sunnis were willing to participate in them, and very few got elected to parliament. One of the ones [Sunnis] who was elected to parliament had a brother who had been in the Ba’th party and there was discussion about whether he should be kicked out of parliament because of guilt by association. That was the mood under which the US oversaw the crafting of the constitution, which the Sunni Arab community overwhelmingly rejected. All three Sunni majority provinces voted against the constitution of 2005, and you could begin to see the origins of a kind of civil war right there.

Again, the issues over which they protested were not primarily sectarian—there was nothing, so much, about theology in the constitution, but the constitution recognized Kurdistan as a super province and gave it all kinds of prerogatives and control over new resources found, and allowed for the creation of a Shi’i super province in the south. In the end the Shi’i public did not vote for that, but there were people who wanted it. And the Sunnis, at the time, were strong what is called in the Middle East “federalists”—they mean by federalism a strong federal government. And so they objected to the extreme decentralization of Iraq implied in the constitution, which went beyond, I think, the situation in Canada where Quebec has certain prerogatives. And many of them were afraid that it would break up the country, so they protested on behalf of the entire nation against what they saw as a regionalist constitution.

In many ways, US policy in Iraq, once they had occupied it, did everything wrong that the South Africans did right after their change from Apartheid. So the wealthy and the powerful Afrikaaners were not expropriated by the African National Congress when it came to power. They were allowed to keep their wealth. They had to share more, and so many African businessmen were brought into the magic circle, and indeed many African National Congress members became junior partners of the Afrikaaner big businessmen in Cape Town, but they were not expropriated. They still have their nice, big houses, and they still are an economic elite. And all of their talents and resources are then invested in South Africa. While it has not by any means been a perfect process, it has been night and day from more punitive and vindictive countries like Zimbabwe. And, in essence, the United States really behaved in Iraq much more like Robert Mugabe behaves in Zimbabwe then like Mandela behaved in South Africa. As for punishing people who genuinely had done something wrong, the South Africans let them off if they would confess, so the truth and reconciliation process was a matter of stating for the public record things the person had actually done wrong, the crimes against humanity that were committed. But then amnesty was granted in return for those confessions. And while there are critics of this policy, I think in South Africa, on the whole and by and large, it worked. In Iraq, instead of having the high Ba’th officials properly tried and confess to their crimes and then maybe rehabilitated or at least allowed to live out their lives under house arrest or something, they were publicly executed or tracked down by militias and shot, or the entirety of their clans was excluded from public office and driven into unemployment and poverty.

The US policies in Iraq, it seems to me, in cooperation with some hardline Shi’a politicians and Kurdish ones, really drove Iraq to the brink over time. It was the legacy that the US left behind that led to our current crisis.

BH: In your answer, you moved past the actual war, the actual invasion quickly to get to the thicker narrative. Is there an independent effect for the actual invasion, the actual war, and its immediate and medium-term outcomes that sort of created the context for all of this, whether it is the chaos or the vacuum or things of the sort? The war itself as a traumatic experience, for all sides, but mostly of course for the Iraqis. What effects, in your opinion, did it have?

JC: The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 in many ways had an effect similar to the Israeli defeat of Egypt in 1967. Many historians see 1967 as a great turning point when pan-Arabism and socialist Arab nationalism was abandoned by a lot of Arab thinkers in favor of a turn toward fundamentalist religion. Having been shown to be helpless in front of Israel and US might, people turned away from the Abdel Nasser kind of—Gamal Abdel Nasser was the president of Egypt in the 1960s—and they turned away from his kind of relatively secular-minded Arab nationalism. And in the same way, the opinion polling and what we know about the people of places like Mosul and Tikrit—the great Sunni Arab centers of northern and western Iraq—suggests that on the whole and by and large, they were secular-minded people. They were nationalists rather than religious fundamentalists. That does not mean that they did not go to mosque or that they did not have religion, but religion was not their ideology, for the most part. And by destroying the Ba’th party and showing how easily the Ba’th army could be defeated and then installing a largely Shi’i and Kurdish government, the United States set in train a similar process whereby many Sunni Arab Iraqis turned against secular socialist Arab nationalism, and turned toward a more primordial kind of identity, went toward religious fundamentalism. There is some opinion polling evidence for this turn.

It [the effect of the 2003 invasion] was not permanent, because people have gone in and out. They have become disappointed with the performance of fundamentalism by the time you get to 2007, 2008, after it provoked a kind of civil war in Iraq. But now, those more secular-minded Iraqis, ex-Ba’thists and so forth, made an alliance even with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, to throw off the Iraqi government, which was largely Shi’i and was seen as oppressive and marginalizing of the Sunnis and as not providing not only services and resources, but it was humiliating them.

But, I think… Mosul is a city of some two million, it is a great cosmopolitan city, a city of culture and learning, and great traditions. And the kind of simple-minded extremist fundamentalism—almost Taliban-like—of ISIL, had very little appeal there, until they were pushed to the brink by the conditions that the United States and the Shi’a allies had set in train.

BH: So, if someone asks at this point, “What do you think are the origins of ISIS?” or if someone asked the flip side of this, and that is, “Do you think it is a fleeting or ephemeral phenomenon?” how would you answer, by way of closing this chapter based on this historical analysis, which I [. . . sentence ends]. As I shared with you, I would like you to expand on without interjection, because we want to hear the full story. And maybe we will have another take and maybe we will ask you to respond to it, and have two people respond to each others’ narratives.

JC: Sure. Well, with regard to the future, it seems clear that this kind of Taliban or ISIL ideology develops in reaction to imperial interventions. So the Taliban come out of the maelstrom of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. People forget how horrible it was. It was, then in the 1980s, like Syria today. There were sixteen million Afghans, three million were forced abroad to Pakistan, two million to Iran, and two million were internally displaced, a million were killed, three million were wounded. So eleven million out of the sixteen [million] had drastic things happen to them. Enormous numbers of widows and orphans were created, and out of those social dislocations, the interruption of family traditions, the large numbers of orphans, you get the rise of the Taliban. People want order back in their lives. The young men had been brought up in very extreme conditions and resorted to a kind of extreme ideology.

I think the situation in Iraq and Syria also contributed in similar ways to the strength and the rise of ISIL. I do not think therefore that US bombing of Syria is likely to destroy the phenomenon, because I think it is these imperial interventions that encourage it in the first place.

And I think that, however, as a government, this so-called Islamic State of this self-proclaimed caliph, Ibrahim al-Samarrai, does not have a future. Nobody wants it there in the region. The Iranians do not want it there, Damascus does not want it there, the Russians do not want it there, the Kurds do not want it there, the United States does not want it there. I mean, if you have that many enemies . . . [sentence ends]. The likelihood is that these guys will be dead in five years.

That is not to say that the phenomenon will go away, because of course the process of killing them will produce a reaction, and I am really afraid, Bassam, that these various forces I have mentioned will do to Mosul what was done to Homs in Syria in the course of “defeating” the so-called Islamic State. I think that the Sunni Arabs of western and northern Iraq are going to feel the brunt of this campaign, and I think that their cities and dwellings are in extreme danger.

But, at the moment I do not see a good way for them to avoid this fate unless they can themselves throw off ISIL, because it their continuing to have a mini-state between Aleppo and Mosul is unacceptable to the regional powers and the international powers. I have compared it to the Zenghi state that preceded Saladin. There was for a time, in medieval Islamic history, a statelet that included both Aleppo and Mosul, so this is not the first time in history that such a conjuncture has been achieved. But it also fell by the wayside and I do not think that those two cities can sustain a state in the long run without all of the trade routes and international cooperation that would be necessary.

BH: Thanks very much. Last question, which is also by way of an intervention, and it is a bit of an analytical, pedagogical question. In your responses you focus on two factors: internal factors, in which you spoke about political economy, or at least favored these kinds of causes over more sectarian, culturalist causes; and then, another set of factors or causal factors you subsumed under imperialism of one sort of another, or one act or another. How do you see the interaction between the two? And what might you say to someone who might say where you are not seeing imperialism playing a role, there is actually imperialism playing a role, though not direct? And with the question of political economy, is it also something that is independent of, say, regional factors, if not larger external international factors? So how do we see—how do you see the relationship between those two strands of causes?

JC: I certainly think that the international great powers have had enormous impact on the political economy and ideologies of the region. The Arab world would have a much stronger left if the US had not connived at destroying it across the board. So we know that in 1963 when there was a Ba’th coup in Iraq, the US had gathered all the names of the members of the communist party and they handed them over— because many of them were covert—they handed them over to the Ba’th party, which then arrested them and tortured them and began the process of the destruction of the Iraqi communist party, which had been a very major party in the 1950s and early 1960s. And this similar kind of thing happened throughout the region in Iran and elsewhere. The US has used its industrial and other might to intervene in the region and shape it so as to keep it alienated, in the Cold War era, from the Soviet Union and to make it a place amenable to international investment in the interest of US corporations.

That was their goal, I think that largely failed, but that was their goal and, indeed, it seems to me that if we look at China, had they left the region alone it is likely that it would have done much better and that US corporations would have had much better grounds for investment and profit in the region than is the case now. With these very heavy kinds of intervention they have pushed the region to the far right, in many ways. So I do not want to deny that in many ways, imperial interests played a large role in shaping the region.

On the other hand, I find it odd that people neglect in their analyses the great macro social movements of the area. So, for instance, it strikes me that what we have seen in the past fifty years in the Middle East has been massive urbanization. Coming out of the colonial period – because the colonial powers, if they did not actively interfere with industrialization, they at least did not promote it—they were much more interested in extracting primary commodities from the region at the cheapest price possible. So, coming out of the colonial period, and after World War Two, the region was largely rural, ninety percent rural, villages. It is now everywhere at least majority urban, and in some countries overwhelmingly urban. By the way, Saudi Arabia and Libya are both overwhelmingly urban now.

When people move from their villages in the countryside to the city, it is extremely alienating. They lose all of the social frameworks that had guided them, and they are in search of new religious identities often, new political identities. They are open to the blandishments of certain forms of extremism because they are unmoored from their regional context. So I think that this process of urbanization can be extremely alienating and destabilizing. And is it really an accident that, say, between 1870 and 1945, Western Europe was in constant turmoil? You had the Franco-Prussian War, you had the Paris Commune, you had revolutions, you had the rise of radical movements like the communists and the nihilists, and you had two world wars. I mean, between 1870 and 1945, the Europeans seem to have polished off on the order of 100 million people in Europe. And then the Belgians probably killed about half of the Congolese in their colony out there, and so forth. There were endless trouble, those Europeans, during this period when they were urbanizing and industrializing. Is it really an accident that now that these same processes are occurring in the Middle East, that there should also be the rise of ideological extremism of various sorts, and enormous dislocations of people, etc.?

I think that people, because Europe has been relatively calm under a pax Americana and, to some extent, in the east, Russian influence since 1945, they have started to forget how turbulent the continent was during its social transformation. And that, if I am right, would also suggest that once the transitions are done and urban industrial (and maybe post-industrial) society becomes well established in the region, it will also find a footing for a more stable kind of politics. But I think that people do not realize to what extent the several hundred million people of the Middle East really have been on the road, in various ways, involved in massive social dislocations, for the past fifty years.

BH: Before we release you, as we say, I would like to ask you to recommend to us, besides your books, which we will note in your bio, what would be good books on the various topics that you shared with us. Two or three books that you would recommend.

JC: I cannot, however, avoid mentioning my new one, which is The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, which looks at the secular and left-of-center very large youth movements in the west of the Middle East in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, which I think is a good corrective to what I see as the kind of over-concentration on religious extremism in the east of the Middle East. But Toby Dodge has a good recent book out about Iraq of the last few years. He is a British scholar at the London School of Economics, and I recommend his work. There is a scholar who wrote about the Syrian business classes, Bassam Haddad, who I think for the political economy of the background of the current struggles in Syria is really—I am not just complimenting you—it is a really important study and I think addresses exactly some of those kinds of issues that I think have been neglected in the analysis. I recommend the various [International] Crisis Group [reports on] the region. This is an NGO that I think does very serious studies of these societies, and often takes account of information and movements that are not highlighted in the mainstream US press.

BH: Is there anything that you would like to leave us off, that is either optimistic or pessimistic, that is about, say, Iraq for now?

JC: Well, Iraq is going to get worse before it gets better, but I do not think that those people who have argued that its breakup is imminent or inevitable are necessarily correct. I think that the centrifugal forces in Iraq are not completely gone. I think it has had very bad governments, and it has had governance of a sort that has pushed people away rather than bringing them together. But the extremeness of the current crisis I think is a turning point in the history of the nation. Either it will throw up an elite that can pull back from the brink and rescue the nation as a unit, or relatively sectional and selfish elites will finish the job of pulling it apart.

BH: Thank you very much, Professor Cole. This was really wonderful and it went by quite quickly. I think it almost went an hour. We would love to speak with you again, and thanks for your time.

JC: Thank you very much.


Related book:

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.