Cole-ture shock

The Ora-Cole of Ann Arbor, author of the mega-blog “Informed Comment,” and El Presidente-elect of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Professor Juan Cole, shares his keen ethnographic insights into the killing of American journalist Steven Vincent in Basra last week. An article in the London Telegraph (to which I also linked) reported that investigators were exploring whether Vincent’s murder was some sort of “honor killing.” The thesis: his relationship with his (Iraqi female) translator offended local sensibilities. This provides Cole with an opportunity to dismiss Vincent as a cultural novice:

In Mediterranean culture, a man’s honor tends to be wrought up with his ability to protect his womenfolk from seduction by strange men. Where a woman of the family sleeps around, it brings enormous shame on her father, brothers and cousins, and it is not unknown for them to kill her. These sentiments and this sort of behavior tend to be rural and to hold among the uneducated, but are not unknown in urban areas. Vincent did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture and was aggressive about criticizing what he could see of it on the surface, and if he was behaving in the way the Telegraph article describes, he was acting in an extremely dangerous manner.

In other words, Vincent got himself killed, out of ignorance. Implication: his journalism should be dismissed.

It’s certainly refreshing to see Cole slip into the style of Raphael Patai, going on about honor and shame and all that. Pentagon, take note: it’s all true. (But you knew that.)

What reeks of bad taste is Cole’s superior dismissal of Vincent, as if his death somehow proves his ignorance. Point of fact: you can know everything “serious” about Middle Eastern culture and never criticize it even in the mildest way, and still get yourself killed by fanatics.

Examples? Take Malcolm Kerr, a former president of MESA who left UCLA to run the American University of Beirut at the worst possible time, and got himself killed by gunmen on campus. Take Michel Seurat, French sociologist of Islam, who stayed in Beirut at the worst possible time, got himself kidnapped by Islamic Jihad (Hezbollah’s kind), got himself mistreated by his captors, and got himself dead by falling seriously ill in his dungeon. (His body still hasn’t been recovered.) These two Western scholars were born in the Arab world (Kerr in Lebanon, Seurat in Tunisia), spoke fluent Arabic, spent decades in the region, knew all about the dangers and still they died. Should we conclude they were “acting in an extremely dangerous manner”? Or does sole responsibility for their deaths lie with their killers and torturers? And if it does, why should Vincent be an exception?

But maybe what’s really at issue here is Cole’s ego (on his website, it usually is). Beneath his haughty dismissal of Vincent (“did not know anything serious”) lies the fact that Vincent had the audacity to challenge him. Vincent didn’t think much of Cole’s armchair expertise or his claim to be driven by concern for Iraqis, and told Cole just that on his weblog:

You might want to review your own site and how well it reflects love and concern for the Iraqi people. After all, on “Informed Comment,” pro-liberation Iraqi bloggers are accused of being CIA agents, the elections are practically dismissed as window-dressing and every terrorist—no, I mean guerrilla, as Cole would have it—attack is given marquis billing, as if their psychopathic bloodlust discredits the liberation of 26 million people. Whoops, I mean 23.5 million because according to Cole’s Wednesday post, 2.5 million Iraqis support the “resistance.”

Well, I thank Cole for revealing his gut-level concern for the Iraqi people… My question to the Professor is, which Iraqi people—the fascist thugs he calls the “resistance,” or the police, National Guardsmen, politicians, everyday people and eight million voters who comprise the true Iraqi “resistance”? We await his Informed Comment.

Cole didn’t respond then. But now that Vincent is dead, Cole has seized the last word in the argument. Vincent shamed him, but now he has his honor back. He’s taken his revenge. These sentiments and this sort of behavior tend to be rural and to hold among the uneducated, but are not unknown among full professors.

I will give Cole this: he does have cultural knowledge—enough to keep away from Iraq, which he’s never visited. Nothing he’s written has endeared him to any Iraqi faction outside the insurgency—quite the opposite. He’d have no protectors. And as someone who spent years in the Middle East as a Bahai missionary, his life wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel if he fell into the wrong hands in Shiite country. Were Cole to surface in Iraq, he’d be “acting in an extremely dangerous manner.” So far, he hasn’t.

But as it happens, Cole will be headed for Beirut in December, on the tab of Saudi billionnaire Prince Alwaleed, to whip up support for his Americana Translation Project. (Is it a coincidence that Cole has just written a fawning puff piece at, praising the new King Abdullah who “has the smile and goatee of a genial beatnik” and defending the kingdom against all comers, from Michael Moore to the neocons? Who knows? The Saudis have a long history of suborning the Middle East studies establishment.) And once in Beirut, Cole could pop over to Baghdad…

Don’t do it, Juan! Think of your readers! Think of MESA! We’ll keep visiting your blog, we promise, even if you remain a pundit of the armchair.

Addendum: Helena Cobban, another “expert” well out of harm’s way, does much the same thing as Cole: Vincent’s ignorance killed him, and anyway why is his death so significant, when so many other journalists have died? (Well, he was deliberately murdered, for starters.) Here again, Vincent is in good company: look at how Cobban, sidling up to Hezbollah on a visit to Beirut, wants us to understand the murder of Malcolm Kerr: “Killing Malcolm Kerr, an evidently noncombatant community leader, was clearly a major rights abuse”—a “rights abuse”! —but “hundreds of Lebanese Shiites were being killed, kidnapped, and otherwise abused by the occupation forces in those years.” Thanks for the perspective, Helena. We’ll remember it if the fiery ones ever grab you.

Follow-up: Tony Badran brings quotes from Juan Cole and Raphael Patai, and asks if you can tell the difference.