Professor Cole, I was there first

Juan Cole continues to have his unedifying tit-for-tat with Christopher Hitchens over his credentials. In the frenzy, Cole has resorted to listing his many travels to the Middle East (with dates), the Middle Eastern languages he says he knows or reads, and so on. It’s come to that.

But Cole claims one credential that I dispute: “I happen to have been the first American observer to explain [Ayatollah] Sistani’s significance, at this weblog in April-July of 2003; go to the archives and do a keyword search.” As a specialist on Shiism, it’s important to Cole that you believe he had Sistani’s number before anyone.

But in fact, nowhere in Cole’s weblog in April 2003 did he “explain the significance” of Sistani (which is why he gives no link, but sends you to search on your own). He just mentioned him in his summaries of press reports. I myself explained Sistani’s significance on April 4, 2003 in a Sandstorm entry entitled “The Ayatollah Who Saved Najaf.” It was linked that very day from the NRO Corner with the teaser: “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Ayatollah Sistani.” Thousands saw it. I even recall sending the link to Cole. All in a day’s work, and nothing to brag about–unless you can’t allow that anyone knew something significant about anything before you did. So since Cole is claiming this and that, let the record show that his Sistani claim is false. Compare my April 4 entry and the April entries Cole wrote before (and even after) that date, and decide which of us first explained Sistani’s significance. No contest.

Cole also makes this statement: “I was also one of the few American scholars publishing on the institution of the marja’-i taqlid or source for emulation among the Shiites, in the 1980s and 1990s. See my [book] Sacred Space and Holy War. I guarantee you Hitchens did not know Sistani existed in February, 2003.” Cole’s book did cover the marja’iyya, but Sistani isn’t mentioned in it at all, nor did Sistani appear in Cole’s weblog prior to April 2003. Hitchens may not have heard of Sistani before April, but Cole probably didn’t know a lot about him either.

Of course, since then Cole has learned and written a lot about Sistani–far more than Hitchens (or I). So why does he bother making all these claims of prior knowledge? It looks compulsive to me.