Cole obtained his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University in 1975, having majored in History and Literature of Religions. For two quarters in his senior year he conducted a research project in Beirut and returned to the city as a graduate student in the fall of 1975, but the civil war prevented Cole from continuing his studies there. Therefore he pursued a Masters degree at the American University in Cairo in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, graduating in 1978. Cole then returned to Beirut for another year and worked as a translator for a newspaper. In 1979 Cole enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles as a doctoral student in the field of Islamic Studies, graduating in 1984. After graduation, Cole was appointed Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan where he would become a full professor in 1995.
Cole became a member of the Bahá'í Faith in 1972 as an undergraduate at Northwestern, and the religion later became a focus of his academic research. He resigned from the Bahai Faith in 1996 after disputes with Bahá'í leadership concerning the Bahá'í system of administration.
Cole married the former Shahin Malik in Lahore in 1982. The couple has a son, Arman, born in 1987.
Cole was awarded Fulbright-Hays fellowships to India (1982) and to Egypt (1985-1986). From 1999 until 2004, Juan Cole was the editor of The International Journal of Middle East Studies. He has served in professional offices for the American Institute of Iranian Studies. He was elected president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America in November 2004. In 2006, he received the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism administered by Hunter College.
In 2006 Cole was nominated to teach at Yale University and was approved by both Yale's sociology and history departments. However, the senior appointments committee overruled the departments, and Cole was not appointed.
According to "several Yale faculty members," the decision to overrule Cole's approval was "highly unusual. Yale Deputy Provost Charles Long stated that "Tenure appointments at Yale are very complicated and they go through several stages, and [the candidates] can fail to pass at any of the stages. Every year, at least one and often more fail at one of these levels, and that happened in this case." The history department vote was 13 yes, 7 no, with 3 abstentions. Professors interviewed by the Yale Daily News said "the faculty appeared sharply divided."
Yale Historian Paula Hyman commented that the deep divisions in the appointment committee were the primary reasons that Cole was rejected: "There was also concern, aside from the process, about the nature of his blog and what it would be like to have a very divisive colleague." Yale political science professor Steven B. Smith commented, "It would be very comforting for Cole's supporters to think that this got steamrolled because of his controversial blog opinions. The blog opened people's eyes as to what was going on. Another Yale historian, John Merriman, said of Cole's rejection: "In this case, academic integrity clearly has been trumped by politics."
In an interview on Democracy Now!, Cole noted that he had never applied for the Yale job: "Some people at Yale asked if they could look at me for a senior appointment. I said, 'Look all you want.' So that's up to them. Senior professors are like baseball players. You’re being looked at by other teams all the time. If it doesn't result in an offer, then nobody takes it seriously." He described the so-called "scandal" surrounding his nomination as "a tempest in a teapot" that had been exaggerated by "neo-con journalists": "Who knows what their hiring process is like, what things they were looking for?
Having converted to the Bahá'í Faith in 1972, Cole began his academic life in the field of Bahá'í Studies, in which he would become quite influential. Life as a Bahá'í encouraged Cole to study the languages, cultures, and history of the Middle East (where the religion originated), and also to "pioneer" on behalf of his faith in several countries with large Muslim populations. These included Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and India. (For a fuller description of Cole's overseas experience, see here.) Cole now speaks Arabic (Modern Standard as well as Lebanese and Egyptian dialects), Persian, and Urdu, and is familiar with Turkish.
Some of Cole's interests have their origins in his Bahá'í background. For example, his interest in Shaykh Ahmad-i-Aksa'i is explainable in terms of Shaykhi influence on the nascent Babí and Bahá'í faiths. All of these movements arose in the context of Shi'a Islam, and like many Bahá'í scholars, Cole made Shi'ism another academic specialty, ultimately writing several monographs on the subject (including historical and political as well as religious dimensions). Native Shi'a communities stretch in an arc from Saudi Arabia to India, and Cole has written on various countries in this arc as well as on Islam in general, the secular history and politics of the region, and comparative studies.
As a result of conflict with the Bahá'í leadership, Cole resigned his membership in the religion in 1996. He later announced that he had recovered his private faith, but remains "out of communion" with the Bahá'í hierarchy. Cole continued to publish on the Bahá'í religion for several years after his resignation; however, with the decade of the 2000s he seems to have moved on to other subjects. Since 9-11 his writings have become more expressly political.
Early in his career Cole established contacts with a number of like-minded Bahá'í scholars, whose discussions took on a life of their own with the rise of the internet. For example, Cole created H-Bahai, a (now inactive, though still extant) website making available a wealth of difficult-to-obtain primary sources on the religion.
Many of Cole's early writings on the Bahá'í Faith were for Bahá'í presses, or else for an online journal which he co-edited (Occasional Papers in the Shaykhi, Babi, and Baha'i Religions, associated with H-Bahai). Some of these were translations, including several "unofficial" scriptural translations, and two volumes by/about early Bahá'í theologian Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl. He has maintained much of this material, as well as other documents and links, online.
Cole is the author of the following monographs:
In addition, he co-edited (with Nikkie R. Keddie) the volume Shi`ism and Social Protest (Yale, 1986); and edited Religion in Iran: From Zoroaster to Baha'u'llah by Alessandro Bausani (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000). The latter is a translation of Bausani's Persia Religiosa (Milan, 1958) with afterwords and bibliographical updates.
Kahlil Gibran is a well-known Lebanese-American poet, essayist, and artist who wrote in Arabic as well as English. Cole has translated three volumes of his Arabic-language literary writings:
Note that Gibran was a Maronite Christian, not a Muslim (despite Sufi influence).
Cole has mentioned being contacted by a lawyer representing Gibran's heirs, who asserted the family's claim to copyright, although these works (published 1905 - 1915) were clearly out of copyright.
Cole has been cited in the press as a Middle East expert several times since 1990. However, he was considered obscure outside his field prior to 2002, when he began publishing his weblog. From 2002 onwards, Cole has been an active commentator in the UK and US media on topics related to the Middle East. His focus has primarily been Iraq, Iran, The Palestinian Authority, and Israel. He has published op-eds on the Mideast at the Washington Post, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Guardian, the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Review, The Nation, the Daily Star, Tikkun magazine as well as at Salon.com, where he is a frequent contributor. He has appeared on the PBS Lehrer News Hour, Nightline, ABC Evening News, the Today Show, Anderson Cooper 360°, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Al Jazeera and CNN Headline News.
Since 2002, Cole has published the blog Informed Comment, covering "History, Middle East, South Asia, Religious Studies, and the War on Terror". Blog entries include comments on widely-reported articles in Western media, summaries of important articles from Arabic and Israeli news sources, and letters and discussions with both critics and supporters.
The blog has won various awards; as of April 2006 the most prominent is the 2005 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism from Hunter College. It has also received two 2004 Koufax Awards: the "Best Expert Blog" and the "Best Blog Post". It has since dropped off the list, but Informed Comment has been ranked as the 99th most popular blog on the Internet by Technorati on October 21, 2006. Cole is a strong critic of the George W. Bush administration and is one of the most respected foreign policy commentators amongst left-wing bloggers.
The July 28, 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a story on Cole's blog and its role in his career. Following essays by several academic bloggers, Cole was given a chance to respond to the question of whether academics should risk career advancement by blogging. His reply, in part, was:
The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic's career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about "careers," the tenured among us least of all. Despite the First Amendment, which only really protects one from the government, most Americans who speak out can face sanctions from other institutions in society. Journalists are fired all the time for taking the wrong political stance. That is why most bloggers employed in the private sector are anonymous or started out trying to be so.
In 2004, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations requested Cole's testimony at hearings to better understand the situation in Iraq.
Cole is president and treasurer of the Global Americana Institute, a group of academics specializing in the Middle East who are working to translate the seminal works of American democracy into various Middle Eastern languages. The group's web site states that the "project will begin with a selected set of passages and essays by Thomas Jefferson on constitutional and governmental issues such as freedom of religion, the separation of powers, inalienable rights, the sovereignty of the people, and so forth.
Generally speaking, Cole approaches the Middle East and West Asia from the point of view of anti-colonialism. Viewing the USA as a colonialist power, he sees it as defending the post-World War I "Sykes-Picot/ Balfour architecture" (described as "a colossal failure") against Arab nationalist or pan-Islamic challengers. These foundered for various reasons, especially "particularism." The U.S., like previous empires, seeks to take advantage of such internal rivalries in order to "divide and rule." Terrorism, he explains (after comparing several countries in the region), is the result of foreign occupation in combination with weak states.
Cole's perspective is also informed by his Bahá'í background which favors internationalism, ethnic diversity, and modernism — values which he traces to various 19th-century Middle Eastern historical developments (the subject of his Modernity and the Millennium.) One important consequence is that he tends to value multinational (and especially UN) initiatives over unilateral military ones. Another is that he favors multi-ethnic states over separatist movements. A third is that he views Islam (along with other religions) as essentially good, but distorted by certain of its political appropriators (and critics). Cole's resignation from his religion freed him from Bahá'í strictures against political involvement, and his blog often offers center-left political opinion.
From the beginning of his blog in 2002, Cole has warned of the difficulties a U.S. invasion of Iraq would present, especially in its aftermath. At first he tried to dissociate himself from either pro-war or anti-war stances, stating that he had "mixed feelings" on the issue. (I.e., he opposed Saddam Hussein's regime, but feared disaster.)
Cole now blames the George W. Bush administration for creating what he calls a "failed state" in Iraq. He particularly cites its decision to disband the Iraqi Army, its treatment of prisoners, its alienation of neighboring countries, its corrupt economic policies, and long delays in organizing elections and forming a (weak) government. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, Cole wrote in 2005, resulted from a "coalition of disparate forces" within the Bush administration, "each with its own rationale" for going to war. He identifies: Bush's own "obsession with restoring family honor" slighted by Saddam Hussein's remaining in power after the Gulf War; Dick Cheney's interest in benefits to the oil industry (he cites "billions in no-bid contracts for [Halliburton]" - of which Cheney was CEO in the 1990s - and which "saved Halliburton from bankruptcy"); Cheney's "Manichaean, Cold War-inspired worldview -- in which the U.S. battled an evil enemy"; Evangelical Christians who "wanted to missonize Iraq"; Karl Rove's wanting to "turn Bush into a war president" to ensure re-election; and neo-conservative s who hoped to transform the Middle East and remove what they perceived as a danger to Israel. The public focus on purported weapons of mass destruction, he added, was an attempt to find a rationale acceptable to the general public.
Cole rejects the Bush administrations early claims of Iraqi cooperation with al-Qaida, noting that Saddam Hussein had "...persecuted and killed both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists in great number."; as well as claims to the effect that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction Rather than making America safer, he says, the war has ironically had the opposite effect, inspiring anti-U.S. militants.
Cole, who began to call the Iraqi conflict a "civil war" as early as 2004 , now says that it consists of three distinct wars: "for control of Basra among Shiite militiamen; for control of Baghdad and its hinterlands between Sunnis and Shiites; and for control of Kirkuk among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Two of these conflicts are traceable to Arab enmity against the U.S. invaders, perceived as supporting Shi'is and Kurds, while the conflict in Basra ("...among SCIRI, the Sadr Movement, Da`wa and Fadhila, plus some small Sadrist offshoots") is unrelated. A key issue is whether some of the southern Iraqi provinces are to be joined together into a "regional confederacy" (Cole's language), as in Kurdistan. Several Shi'i political parties support incompatible plans which would benefit their respective constituencies and home regions.
In a 2003 editorial entitled "Iraq must be Kept together as a Single State,", Cole states that partition would be "unacceptable to all the neighbors" and undesired by most Iraqis. Furthermore, the Sunni daughter state would be unviable, while Kurdistan would face dire problems. Cole writes:
His proposed exit strategy for the U.S. may be found in the same article, with additional comments here.
Cole's perspective on Iran is informed by his Bahá'í background. The Bahá'í Faith first arose in Persia whose government caused the exile of the religion's Prophet-Founder, Baha'u'llah, as well as family members and disciples to a prison in Akka (or Akko, Acre, Israel) in the Ottoman empire (located today in Israel), has many of its scriptures in Persian, and represents the largest religious minority in Iran. Cole's writings accordingly celebrate Persia as a source of culture. At the same time, Cole has met Bahá'ís who were later executed by the Khomeini regime.
Cole supported the reformist president Muhammad Khatami and rued his electoral loss to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He reports that in 2003, Iran (addressing the Bush administration through the Swiss embassy) proposed a comprehensive peace agreement, which Bush refused even to discuss:
Cole has written numerous posts warning that the Bush administration is attempting to create a war with Iran. He suggests that sabre-rattling offers a way for two unpopular regimes to attract nationalistic support. He has also speculated that the Bush administration's objective in Iran is to control future supplies of oil and natural gas, while denying them to energy-hungry China and India.
On the nuclear issue, he writes that "Iran is a good ten years away from having a bomb," and points out that Ali Khamenei and other leaders have condemned nuclear weapons as un-Islamic. Cole also dismisses the Bush administration's allegation that Iran has supported terrorism in Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather, the U.S. has lent support to anti-Iranian terrorist groups such as PEJAK.
Cole chastizes several U.S. presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani, and Mitt Romney, for making bellicose statements about Iran in order to present themselves in a tougher or more conservative light:
In an article published at the Slate Magazine website, Hitchens accused Cole of attempting to minimize and distort the meaning of the speech, which Hitchens understood to be a repetition of "the standard line" that "the state of Israel is illegitimate and must be obliterated". Hitchens also denigrated Cole's competence in both Persian and "plain English" and described him as a Muslim apologist.
Cole responded that while he personally despised "everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini", he nonetheless objected to the New York Times translation." Cole wrote that it inaccurately suggested Ahmadinejad was advocating an invasion of Israel ("that he wants to play Hitler to Israel's Poland"). He added that a better translation of the phrase would be "the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time," a metaphysical if not poetic reference rather than a militaristic one. He also stated that Hitchens was incompetent to assess a Persian-to-English translation, and accused him of unethically accessing private Cole emails from an on-line discussion group.
Cole is a strong critic of Israel's foreign and military policy and its treatment of Palestinians. He criticizes the nature of America's support for Israel and the activities of the "Israel Lobby", and claims that some senior US officials such as Doug Feith have dual loyalties to America and the Israeli Likud Party.
Cole opposes boycotts of Israeli academics because he believes that the academic community in Israel is mostly opposed to the policies of the Likud party.
Cole's positive prescriptions can be summarized thus:
Cole also writes on his blog regarding Muslim attitudes toward modern Israel:
Cole distinguishes "traditional" al-Qaeda from various 4-6 man cells scattered around the world who may identify with its goal, and use the name, but are not otherwise in contact with it. The former group consists of perhaps 5,000 members ("probably no more than a few hundred of them actually dangerous to the United States") whose activities "should be combatted by good police and counter-terrorism work." According to Cole, the Bush administration's view of "al-Qaeda" conflates various unrelated Muslim groups into a "bogeyman."
As of 2006 there were "less than 1000" foreign (i.e., genuine) al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq, although the Bush administration's actions have caused increasing numbers of Iraqi Sunnis to sympathize or identify with that organization. Such native sympathizers are referred to on his blog as "Salafi jihadis." Cole dismisses as "implausible" the prospect of such groups taking over Iraq.
Cole calls the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan "the right war at the right time," and credits it with breaking up a network of al-Qaeda training camps which posed a danger to the U.S. However, he charges that Bush
Cole complains that Iraq has displaced Afghanistan from the public consciousness. "As for money, Iraq has hogged the lion's share," he writes. "What has been spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan is piddling." Talk of furthering democracy and women's rights, or eliminating opium poppy cultivation there, has all but evaporated.("Half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product now comes from poppy sales.") Al-Qaeda now controls some territory in the south of Afghanistan, and is poised to return to power.
for these two relatively well-off regions.
However, Cole acknowledges that 45 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq are Saudi.
On another occasion he observed that "there is no prospect in my lifetime of Saudi Arabia being less than indispensable to the United States in the global energy market."
Cole lived in Beirut for several years, and was present for part of the 1975-1976 civil war. His overview of 20th century Lebanese history blames the CIA for rigging elections there in 1957, in order to allow then-president Camille Chamoun a second term. (Chamoun had apparently persuaded President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the Druze leaned towards Communism.) This had the effect of forcing pro-Nasser Arab nationalists outside the political process. Cole additionally blames the influx of 100,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948--and the various later military actions against them by Syria and Israel--for the condition of Lebanese politics today.
During the 2006 Lebanon War, Cole accused both sides of committing "war crimes" against civilians. Cole stated that "[Israel has] every right to defend itself against Nasrallah and his mad bombers" while voicing disapproval for the "wholesale indiscriminate destruction and slaughter in which the Israelis have been engaged against the Lebanese in general. Cole also accused Israel of having planned the operation as much as a year in advance, rather than simply responding to provocation.
Cole describes Syria thus:
Syria helped bring about Lebanon's Cedar Revolution by "overplaying its hand and making the Lebanese accept its choice for president, Gen. Émile Lahoud..." As a result of these political shifts, the Baathists are concerned that their Lebanese opponents "will try to use the UN, the US and Israel to unseat them," and in order to forestall this, have attempted or successfully arranged several assassinations in that country.
As to the possibility of "regime change," Cole writes:
Syria now hosts 1.4 million refugees from Iraq, but has recently tightened visa rules and is attempting to gradually repatriate them (despite the arrival of 500 more every day).
Cole takes a generally negative view of Kurdish separatist movements, though he supports cultural and language rights for the Kurdish people. On June 18, 2007, in regard to an article in The Guardian on tensions between Turkey, the PKK, and Iraqi Kurdistan, Cole wrote:
See here for Cole's analysis of a political opinion poll in southeastern Turkey.
Cole criticizes Iraqi Kurdistan under Massoud Barzani as "proto-fascist" , and opposes the partition of Iraq into multiple sovereign states, while conceding that some sort of devolution is inevitable. As of 2006, Cole recommended the establishment of five "superprovinces" ("Deep South, Middle Euphrates, Baghdad, Sunnistan, and Kurdistan, along with two smaller ethnic enclaves, of Turkomanistan and Chaldeanistan in the north..."); the partition of the Kirkuk region as a compromise between Kurdish, Arab, Chaldean, and Turkmen aspirations (with Kirkuk itself as a shared capital on the model of India's Chandigarh); and a complex oil-sharing formula:
He often cites the partition of India, in which hundreds of thousands died and tens of millions were made refugees, as a cautionary example arguing against a division of Iraq into multiple sovereign states.
As for Syria (home to 2 million Kurds), Bashar al-Assad's government views Kurdish aspirations as a threat, and therefore supports Turkey (despite having secretly assisted Iraq's Kurds during the 1990s.
The Kurdish situation in Iran, and the government's attitude to it, is roughly similar. Cole suspects the U.S. military and intelligence services of supporting PEJAK and counts this as yet another of the various "fronts" of the Iraqi civil war.
Cole opposes the Pervez Musharraf regime, which he blames for cracking down on democracy activists, while simultaneously allowing Islamists based in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province to consolidate and expand their political power. He points out that Musharraf is actually a "hawk" with respect to India (in contrast to the government of Nawaz Sharif, which had made overtures to it before the coup), and cancelled a special-forces operation aimed at killing Osama bin Ladin. (The operation had been urged by President Bill Clinton, and if successful, would likely have prevented the September 11, 2001 attacks.)
Cole also censures the George W. Bush administration for not pushing for democratization in Pakistan. Such a development would not threaten U.S. interests, he writes, since whenever elections have been held, Taliban-like movements have not received much support from voters. On the contrary, the danger is that U.S. support for Musharraf may alienate middle-class Pakistanis.
Cole's wife Shahin received her legal education in Lahore, Pakistan, and has also written against Musharraf's crackdown.
Cole recommends that "the US should strong-arm India and Pakistan into a final settlement of the Kashmir issue. [...]The Kashmir issue generates far more terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war, than Iraq ever did.
In 2002 he wrote that "It is unclear whether Musharraf simply cannot stop the terrorists [from Kashmir into India], or whether his military government is still lukewarm about trying to do so. However, in 2005 he expressed doubt that one would find
Cole lived in Cairo for several years during the 1970s (after fleeing Lebanon). On pressures for democracy in Egypt, he writes that "Having a slightly more representative government is always to the good, but the Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a force for progressivism in the region." He attributes the success of the Muslim Brotherhood to 1960's-era support from Saudi Arabia (which distrusted Nasser's secular nationalism); and more generally, to the legacy of British imperialism. His book Napoleon's Egypt holds up that historic episode as a mirror of contemporary American policies in Iraq.
While Cole does not often discuss Sudan ("There are lots of massacres, deaths and tragedies in the world that I don't have time to cover in my little blog...") , he does argue that rather than a "black African" versus "Arab" conflict (as "rightwing Zionists" characterize it for the benefit of American domestic politics), "the [North / South] dispute is not about race. It is about political separatism and regionalism." The parties to the conflict are, in fact, racially indistinguishable. In Darfur they are also religiously indistinguishable (both groups being Muslim), and Arabic is spoken to some extent on both sides.
Alexander H. Joffe in the Middle East Quarterly has written that "Cole suggests that many Jewish American officials hold dual loyalties, a frequent anti-Semitic theme.". Cole argues that his critics have "perverted the word 'antisemitic,'" and also points out that "in the Middle East Studies establishment in the United States, I have stood with Israeli colleagues and against any attempt to marginalize them or boycott them".
According to Efraim Karsh, Cole has done "hardly any independent research on the twentieth-century Middle East", and Karsh characterized Cole's analysis of this era as "derivative." He has also responded to Cole's criticism of Israeli policies and the influence of the "Israel lobby", comparing them to accusations that have been made in anti-semitic writings. Cole responded directly to Karsh in his blog, dismissing one of Karsh's charges, that Cole's criticisms echo themes in the antisemitic tract Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as a "propaganda technique," adding that "No serious person who knows me or my work would credit his outrageous insinuations for a moment." Cole also defended his knowledge of modern Middle Eastern history, comparing his experience "on the ground" in the modern Arab world favorably with that of Bernard Lewis, a historian he said is "lionized" by Karsh.