Author Juan Cole Helps SHU Students in 'Engaging the Muslim World'

News Story: October 28, 2009

They are, by some estimates, some 1.5 billion strong, and collectively, they control most of the world’s known reserves of petroleum. These two facts must dominate the West’s engagement of the Muslim World, according to Middle East expert and historian Dr. Juan Cole. A professor at the University of Michigan and author of numerous books on the region, Dr. Cole addressed an audience of students who packed University Commons on Monday, October 19.

Cole’s sobering analysis is that we as a culture are nowhere close to energy independence, and that, at best, this will not happen for generations. With competition for hydrocarbons accelerating as developing nations grow their economies and oil-producing states deplete their reserves, engagement with the Middle East – the self-defined Muslim world – is critical, he explained. The four biggest suppliers to the United States are Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Mexico, he asserted, is close to turning off the spigot, and in just five years, it could essentially no longer produce any oil for export to the U.S. That means a growing dependence on regimes that are not always friendly to the West.

Further, while much of the First World is seeing sharply declining birth rates, the world’s Muslims continue to experience “high natality” – birth rates well above average. Three decades ago, for example, Pakistan had 70 million inhabitants; today, the figure has reached 170 million people – an increase in population the size of Mexico’s in a single generation. It means that many countries are headed for Muslim majorities in the foreseeable future, joining the 48 nations that already have such majorities.

A frequent contributor to programs ranging from National Public Broadcasting’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer to the Colbert Report, he blasted the mainstream media for lack of depth in reporting and for lumping issues together in a way that unfairly targets Muslims and the Mid East. Notably, he defined Islam as an increasingly Asian religion now that the largest Islamic countries in the world are not in the Middle East at all but include Indonesia and Pakistan. The United States is home to some six million Muslims, and that number will inevitably climb, he said.

In the face of these facts, he argued for what he considers a more realistic and respectful engagement of the Muslim World, finding “no menace” in the region at all. It is easy to imagine that in fairly short order, the world’s population will be a third Muslim, he said, and no foreign policy can succeed that is not fully aware of such a towering reality.

Professor Cole entertained questions on a wide variety of subjects and stayed on to meet students and sign copies of his award-winning book, Engaging the Muslim World. Sponsored by the Ryan-Matura Library, the lecture was part of The Human Journey series of colloquia.