Juan Cole loses head

“The American deployment of terror against the Iraqi population has, of course, dwarfed anything the French accomplished in Egypt by orders of magnitude.”

Juan Cole

Juan Cole is busy promoting his new book Napoleon’s Egypt, the hook being a comparison between Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt and George W. Bush in Iraq. This could make for an interesting exercise in the hands of a thoughtful and dispassionate historian. In Cole’s hands, it just deteriorates into Bush-bashing, from which the American president emerges as a bigger deployer of terror than Napoleon.

One of Cole’s angles is to emphasize the brutality of all occupations, which he highlights by telling this story of a French atrocity:

At one point, the French are said to have brought 900 heads of slain insurgents to Cairo in bags and ostentatiously dumped them out before a crowd in one of that city’s major squares to instill Cairenes with terror. (Two centuries later, the American public would come to associate decapitations by Muslim terrorists in Iraq with the ultimate in barbarism, but even then hundreds of such beheadings were not carried out at once.)

Right away, there’s something unhinged about the part in the parentheses, which seems to plead on behalf of the video decapitators in Iraq. (“Your honor, we only did them one at a time.”) But Cole went even further in prepared remarks he delivered at the Washington-based New America Foundation on August 24. Again he told the story of the French dumping heads in a Cairo square, with this addition: “We now associate beheadings with Islamic terrorism. But Bonaparte and the French Republic of course were the great beheaders initially. It was a very modern technique.”

It was a very modern technique. If he’d said it in Q&A, I’d let it pass. But he said it in prepared remarks. I won’t even begin the litany of historical precedents, stretching back to antiquity. But I will link here to an article by Timothy Furnish, “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” which looks at decapitation in Islamic theology and history, and shows that it’s been a sanctioned punishment from the very beginning, for criminals, dissidents, rebels, and defeated enemies. Most famously, the Prophet Muhammad ordered 600 to 900 men of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza executed by decapitation. Muhammad and his followers would seem to have had a millennium’s head start over Napoleon in the race for the title of initial “great beheaders.”

Cole’s description of beheading as “very modern” isn’t just a mistake. It tells you just how driven he is to blame the West for everything he deplores and relativize even the most revolting acts of Muslim terrorism. Terrorists are cutting off heads in Iraq? The West started the beheading with Napoleon, so we’re just reaping what we’ve sown. They use terror? It’s because Bush, like Napoleon, has followed “the strategy of ruling by terror and swift, draconian punishment for acts of resistance.” We are guilty not only of our sins. We are guilty of theirs, by our example and our actions. You see, until we came along, everyone got to keep his head.

Real reading: The Iraq hook for Cole’s book is just a stunt an attempt to replicate the success of Sir Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, a thirty-year-old account of the Algerian war that’s been revived by the Iraq war. As Gary Kamiya wrote in Salon.com, Horne is “untainted by the partisan rancor of American politics,” which may be why he got an invite to meet with Bush. If you’re looking for a French precedent with much closer Iraq parallels, read Horne’s book, just reissued in paperback with a new preface relating to Iraq. Hear Horne talk about the parallels here.

Graphic: Detail from Henri Regnault’s painting, “Execution Without Trial Moorish Kings of Granada,” Musée d’Orsay, Paris.