Left: Professor Juan Cole; photo by historymike
A vicious virtual debate is raging between Juan Cole, the Richard Hudson Research Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist, and socialist-turned neoconservative.
The source of the feud is an article Hitchens penned for Slate. Hitchens accused Cole of being an "apologist" for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. His smoking gun: an excerpt from a private email sent by Cole to a private online forum in which Cole debated the accuracy of a translation of one line of an Ahmedinejad speech.
The email in question - which Cole considers to be "theft" - details Cole's reading of the infamous statement of Ahmadinejad in which the Iranian leader supposedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Here are Cole's remarks:
Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope-- that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah's government.
Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that "Israel must be wiped off the map" with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people. He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.
Again, Ariel Sharon erased the occupation regime over Gaza from the page of time...I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies.
Left: Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens referred to Cole in his attack piece as a "a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community."
In response, Cole made the following statement in a rebuttal on his excellent blog Informed Comment:
Well, I don't think it is any secret that Hitchens has for some time had a very serious and debilitating drinking problem. He once showed up drunk to a talk I gave and heckled me. I can only imagine that he was deep in his cups when he wrote, or had some far Rightwing think tank write, his current piece of yellow journalism. I am sorry to witness the ruin of a once-fine journalistic mind.
Cole has since apologized for the assumption that Hitchens's well-documented propensity to remain inebriated for most of the day somehow interfered with his ability to critique the argument, but reiterated that he considers Hitchens an "Asinine Thief."
I will set aside the question of any merits in the article by Hitchens for the moment. I think that Cole's rebuttals destroy any pretense that Hitchens could claim toward bringing intellectual force to the debate on the true meaning of Ahmadinejad's comment, at least far better than I could.
What most disturbs me is the McCarthy-esque character assasination that Hitchens attempts to commit on Juan Cole. Admittedly, the historian has been against the war in Iraq, but he is far from being a radical leftist.
In addition, Hitchens makes the ridiculous claim that Cole somehow is not qualified to be an expert on the modern Middle East, since his traditional area of specialization is nineteenth-century Middle Eastern history.
Sorry, Hitchens - historians cover a lot of territory in their work, and Dr. Cole knows more about all periods of Middle Eastern history than you will ever master. That statement is akin to me, a lowly Midwestern writer and graduate history student, calling into question Hitchens's renowned expertise on triple malt scotch (sorry, I could not resist the temptation - off to the woodshed).
I have had the pleasure of attending two lectures given by Dr. Cole, and also had the opportunity to speak with him when he visited Toledo last October. I briefly toyed with the notion of working with him at the University of Michigan when I applied to the school's PhD program, although the UM graduate committee's decision to not offer me an graduate assitantship made that a moot point.
Cole is a voice of reason and intellect in a debate that is littered with the inflammatory rhetoric of radical elements on the right and left. I listened to him politely chastise audience members at a lecture who wrongly assumed that, since he was against the war, he must be a radical leftist.
Cole is now being targeted by forces on the right in an effort to sabotage his opportunity to teach at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and in the Yale History Department as a tenured professor.
Despite the proclamations by some on the right, it is indeed possible to oppose the war and yet be a loyal, patriotic American. Dr. Cole, despite his anti-war views, is no radical extremist; he is simply one of America's most knowledgeable sources on the Middle East, and it is a sad commentary on our times when a voice of reason is slagged as an apologist for terrorists and repressive regimes.