In February, I wrote that I would be shocked if Yale appointed Juan Cole to a professorship in the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. Now that he’s been declared a finalist, I see I’m not alone. The appointment has been the subject of three hard-hitting pieces in the Yale Daily News, the New York Sun, and the Wall Street Journal. They raise all the obvious objections to Cole that I’ve been raising for a long time. The question that sticks in my mind is this: how did Cole get this far in the first place? Here’s one possibility.
One member of the search committee is Yale history professor Abbas Amanat, who also runs Yale’s equivalent of a Middle East center. Amanat is a distinguished scholar, whose judgment normally would be important in such matters. However, he has had an extra-academic relationship to Cole, which may well constitute a conflict of interest between personal obligation and institutional responsibility.
The sum of it is that Amanat and Cole belonged to a small group of dissident Baha’is who left (or were eased out of) the organized “Faith” in the 1990s. In the bitter polemics surrounding this affair, Cole defended Amanat against charges that he had abandoned his belief. “He has never disavowed being a Baha’i,” Cole attested of Amanat, “and has been an important mentor to younger Baha’i scholars in the Middle East studies field.” Cole wrote that Amanat “has feelings about the Faith that prevent him from doing so [i.e., renouncing his belief], despite what he described to me as his ‘liminality.'” Cole also composed a detailed apologia for Amanat, defending him against what Cole called the “Inquisition” of the Baha’i administration.
It is perhaps interesting to note that Amanat and Cole are also politically aligned. The Yale Daily News gave this account of an Iraq war “teach-in” held at Yale in January: “Cole said the decisions of the U.S. government upon entering the war were misguided. Abbas Amanat, a professor of history who concluded the event, reenforced the themes in Cole’s speech.” Amanat’s views on Iran are likewise indistinguishable from Cole’s. And immediately after 9/11, Amanat followed Cole in locating the “ultimate rallying point for the Arab and Muslim worlds” in U.S. policy toward Palestine.
Given all these personal and political intersections, one wonders whether this is yet another case of friend-brings-a-friend. Such a culture created the morass at Columbia, where Edward Said managed to assemble a small faculty of personal allies. It would be unfortunate were Yale to allow scholars with like allegiances, like interests, and like minds to nest in its Middle East programs.