Friday, May 05, 2006

P.S. re Cole, Hitchens, & Ahmadinejad

In a recent post about Michael Young on Hitchens vs. Cole, I inserted the following bolded remark (in brackets) into this passage from Michael Young's piece:
Of particular irritation to Cole was that Hitchens used a passage from a letter he sent to the Gulf 2000 mailing list, which is private and where permission must be requested to quote. [JW: Whatever the details here, this particular objection was a bit disingenuous on Cole's part, since he has expressed essentially the same views publicly in his blog and elsewhere. This is a red herring.] That's a reasonable beef from Cole, but he could have responded by simply correcting Hitchens' "inaccurate screed," based on his own declared knowledge of Persian, and asking Slate to publish a rebuttal.
One correspondent of mine, a scholar with an interest in Middle Eastern politics, asked whether I could substantiate my suggestion "that what Cole said on his web-site is the same as what he said on Gulf 2000"--and, if so, whether he could quote me on this matter. I responded:
Sure.
I am not privy to Cole's private e-mail correspondence, nor to the Gulf 2000 e-mail list. What I know is this. Hitchens referred to, and criticized, some arguments and interpretations that Cole has made concerning certain statements by Ahmadinejad and their implications. The substance of Cole's arguments & interpretations referred to by Hitchens are entirely familiar to me, based only on access to Cole's published statements.
Whether or not Cole used precisely the same wording in his blog and other public statements as he did in his Gulf 2000 messages is another matter. He may not have, but judging from the passage that Hitchens wrote about, any differences in wording don't seem to have affected the substance of Cole's positions on these issues. If I have a spare moment or two, perhaps I'll take the trouble to locate the precise spots where Cole made these points in public. But there's no doubt that he has made them in public.
What follows is an elaboration and specification of these assertions, with some citations. Frankly, I don't believe that my claims should seem at all controversial to anyone who has been following Juan Cole's public discussions of these matters, so perhaps my effort here is misplaced, but I suppose there is no harm in pinning down some of the relevant facts.

=> Let us first return to the passage with which I began.
Of particular irritation to Cole was that Hitchens used a passage from a letter he sent to the Gulf 2000 mailing list, which is private and where permission must be requested to quote. [JW: Whatever the details here, this particular objection was a bit disingenuous on Cole's part, since he has expressed essentially the same views publicly in his blog and elsewhere. This is a red herring.] That's a reasonable beef from Cole, but he could have responded by simply correcting Hitchens' "inaccurate screed," based on his own declared knowledge of Persian, and asking Slate to publish a rebuttal.
To avoid any possible confusion, we should separate out several distinct questions here. Cole may well have a "reasonable beef" (as Michael Young put it) about being quoted from a restricted e-mail list--this seems plausible to me. And let us even consider hypothetically, for the sake of argument, the possibility that Hitchens's criticisms of Cole's substantive arguments might be incorrect. Even if both of these things were true (and I believe the second is not), that wouldn't affect the points I made in the bracketed statement above.

The question here is whether Hitchens, by quoting this particular passage from Cole's Gulf 2000 message, distorted or misrepresented Cole's substantive positions on the relevant issues. As far as I can tell, the answer is clearly no, and any suggestion otherwise would appear to be without foundation.

All I know about Cole's discussions in the Gulf 2000 list are (a) the passage quoted by Hitchens and (b) another of Cole's Gulf 2000 messages that Cole himself quoted, apparently in full, on his "Informed Comment" website as part of his response to Hitchens ("Hitchens the Hacker; And, Hitchens the Orientalist, And, "We don't Want Your Stinking War!"). Based on these two quotations, which I believe are the only ones in the public domain, it seems clear that the substantive views that Cole has expressed on his website and in other public forums are the same as the views he expressed in these Gulf 2000 messages.

=> I won't try to track down all the occasions when Cole has commented on Ahmadinejad's statements and their implications. But a quick and easy Google search leads to a (public) piece that Cole posted in an on-line site called truthdig ("Fishing for a Pretext to Squeeze Iran" - March 13, 2006) Aside from having already read this piece myself, I have seen several references to it by other people, so I know there's nothing esoteric about it. One relevant passage in Cole's truthdig piece, which dovetails with what he has said elsewhere, is the following:
The nuclear issue is for the most part a pretext for the Americans to exert pressure on the regime in Tehran. This is not to say that proliferation is not a worrisome issue, or that it can be ruled out that Iran wants a bomb. It is to say that the situation simply has not reached the point of crisis, and therefore other motivations must be sought for the Bush administration’s breathless rhetoric.
President Ahmadinejad, it should be freely admitted, has, through his lack of diplomatic skills and his maladroitness, given his enemies important propaganda tools. Unlike his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier. He went to an anti-Zionist conference and quoted Ayatollah Khomeini, saying that the “Occupation regime” must “vanish.” This statement about Israel does not necessarily imply violence. After all, Ariel Sharon made the occupation regime in the Gaza Strip vanish. The quote was translated in the international press, however, as a wish that “Israel be wiped off the map,” and this inaccurate translation has now become a tag line for all newspaper articles written about Iran in Western newspapers. [Incidentally, Al Jazeera used the same translation. Like other reports at the time, they were following the official English-language translation issued by the Iranian government's IRIB news service. --JW]
From the context provided by the conference, the rest of Ahmadinejad's speech, Ahmadinejad's references to Khomeini, and a great deal else, it is clear that this call for the "Occupation regime" to "vanish" was a call for Israel to "vanish." (The conference was not precisely an "anti-Zionist conference," but one whose title called for a "World Without Zionism"--i.e., a world without Israel.)

Cole knows all this, of course. Here is a passage from another publicly available source--namely, a year-end wrap-up of developments during 2005 that Cole posted on his "Informed Comment" website ("The Middle East and America in 2005: How the Region Has Changed" - December 30, 2005). This post has been very widely cited, and even reproduced elsewhere.
Ahmadinejad's victory is the triumph of the hard Iranian right. He has alienated virtually all Western diplomats hoping to work with Iran, pushing his country into renewed isolation in the space of only a few months. He has been particularly stupid in his pronouncements on Israel. He quoted Ayatollah Khomeini as saying that the "Occupation Regime" (i.e. Israel) "must vanish." He views the Holocaust as a "legendary epic," and clearly doubts it. He suggested that if it did occur, then the Jews should have been given part of Europe on which to make a state, rather than displacing the Palestinian people. (This is not a new talking point. King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia said the same thing in the late 1940s.) His statements were morally outrageous and historically ignorant, but he did not actually call for mass murder (Ariel Sharon made the "occupation regime" in Gaza "vanish" last summer) or for the expulsion of the Israeli Jews to Europe.
I can't resist the passing comment that Cole keeps repeating that Gaza analogy, but it's pretty weak. I'm sure he knows perfectly well that ending the "occupation regime" in Gaza and ending the "occupation regime" in Israel (i.e., ending Israel) are entirely different things.

It is true, as Cole has repeated frequently, that Ahmadinejad did not explicitly call for Israel to be violently destroyed, and Ahmadinejad did not explicitly say that Iran should carry out this destruction. But the arguments that Cole tries to build on the basis of these points strike me as unconvincing, to put it mildly. When someone like Ahmadinejad calls for a country like Israel to be completely eliminated, it is unlikely that he has peaceful conversations in mind. Nor, in practice, would the destruction of Israel be a harmless affair. Reacting with alarm to Ahmadinejad's explicit call for Israel's elimination is not at all "hysterical," even if his language is not as explicitly bloodthirsty as numerous other statements along the same lines.

Sure, lots of people in the Arab world have been making more explicitly violent and bloodthirsty statements in this vein for a half-century. But when the President of a major Middle Eastern state ruled by a radical Islamist regime (which seems to be on its way to getting nuclear weapons) says this sort of thing, and does so in a period when the most radical tendencies in the regime appear to be resurgent, that carries a little more weight.

I might even be willing to concede, in principle, that some of the reactions to Ahmadinejad's statements about the necessity for Israel's long-term elimination may have been too alarmist. I realize that Cole's aim is to try to lower the emotional temperature, and that's not entirely a bad thing. But it seems to me that (at the very least) he has gone overboard in the opposite direction. OK, it's hard to get the tone precisely right in such matters. But there's a point at which this kind of argument crosses the line into wishful thinking and disinformation.

However, I don't want to get very far into the substance of the issues here. Instead, I am focusing on the more specific question posed above.

=> So did Hitchens's quotation from Cole's Gulf 2000 e-mail message distort or misrepresent the views that Cole has expressed on the relevant issues? To remind ourselves about what the relevant issues are, let's start with the first paragraph of Hitchens's piece ("The Cole Report"):
In some ways, the continuing row over his call for the complete destruction of Israel must baffle Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. All he did, after all, was to turn up at a routine anti-Zionist event and repeat the standard line—laid down by the Ayatollah Khomeini and thus considered by some to be beyond repeal—that the state of Israel is illegitimate and must be obliterated. There's nothing new in that. In the early '90s, I can remember seeing, in the areas around Baalbek in Lebanon that were dominated by Hezbollah and Amal, large posters of the by-then-late Khomeini embellished (in English) with the slogan, "Israel Must Be Completely Destroyed!" And I have twice been to Friday prayers in Tehran itself, addressed by leading mullahs and by former President Rafsanjani, where the more terse version (Marg bar Esrail—"Death to Israel") is chanted as a matter of routine; sometimes as an applause line to an especially deft clerical thrust.
All this, I believe, is straightforward and should be uncontroversial. The official policy of the Iranian regime, going back to Khomeini, is that Israel's existence (not Israel's policies, not Israel's occupation of the West Bank & Gaza, not Israel's unwillingness to accept a two-state accord with the Palestinians) is illegitimate and unacceptable, and that Israel must eventually be eliminated. Cole doesn't deny this.

Furthermore, Hitchens points out, Ahmadinejad has explicitly and noisily restated this position (which tended to be avoided by former President Khatami and the other reformists--though, as far as I know, Khatami never explicitly repudiated this position, either).

The debate between Hitchens and Cole concerns what Cole has been saying about how we should interpret and assess all this, and whether (as Hitchens charges) Cole's interpretations of Ahmadinejad's statements and their implications have been systematically misleading, tendentious, and (to quote from a useful discussion by Ami Isseroff) "sanitizing."

I don't want to adjudicate the substantive arguments between Cole and Hitchens regarding these issues here (though I do think that, overall, Hitchens's position is more convincing). I just want to make the point that these are the significant issues between them.

=> Now, as far as I can tell, the difference between (a) what Hitchens quoted Cole as saying in one of his messages on the Gulf 2000 list (which Cole later corrected in part), and (b) what Cole has been saying publicly and consistently comes down to one specific technical point--the substantive significance of which appears to be trivial or nonexistent.

Here is Hitchens's quotation from Cole's message to the Gulf 2000 list:
Cole continues to present himself as an expert on Shiism and on the Persian, Arabic, and Urdu tongues. Let us see how his claim vindicates itself in practice. Here is what he wrote on the "Gulf 2000" e-mail chat-list on April 22:
It bears repeating as long as the accusation is made. Ahmadinejad did not "threaten" to "wipe Israel off the map." I'm not sure there is even such an idiom in Persian. He quoted Khomeini to the effect that "the Occupation regime must end" (ehtelal bayad az bayn berad). And, no, it is not the same thing. It is about what sort of regime people live under, not whether they exist at all. Ariel Sharon, after all, made the Occupation regime in Gaza end.
Apparently, Cole was quoting the Persian phrase from memory, and he got it a bit wrong. He apparently conceded this in a later message to the Gulf 2000 list, and remembered that the actual phrase used by Khomeini (and quoted by Ahmadinejad), was as follows (here I quote again from Cole's response to Hitchens):
The phrase he then used as I read it is "The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)."
OK, Cole corrected himself regarding the precise Persian phrase. So far, this is a question of terminology, not substance. The substantive question is how Cole interprets the meaning, implications, and practical significance of these statements by Khomeini and Ahmadinejad. In substantive terms, what is the difference between what Cole was been quoted as saying on the Gulf 2000 list and what he has been saying in public forums? As far as I can tell, none at all. Nor, in the course this controversy, has Cole said anything that would suggest otherwise.

Here, again, is a relevant formulation from Cole's truthdig piece:
He went to an anti-Zionist conference and quoted Ayatollah Khomeini, saying that the “Occupation regime” must “vanish.” This statement about Israel does not necessarily imply violence. After all, Ariel Sharon made the occupation regime in the Gaza Strip vanish.
And here is a passage from Cole's response to Hitchens. Again, this is quoted by Cole from one of his own Gulf 2000 messages, but presented as his current thinking.
But the actual quote, which comes from an old speech of Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all. The second reason is that it is just an inexact translation. The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that "the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time." It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.
And, once again, here is what Cole said in "The Middle East and America in 2005: How the Region Has Changed" on his "Informed Comment" website ...
He quoted Ayatollah Khomeini as saying that the "Occupation Regime" (i.e. Israel) "must vanish." He views the Holocaust as a "legendary epic," and clearly doubts it. He suggested that if it did occur, then the Jews should have been given part of Europe on which to make a state, rather than displacing the Palestinian people. (This is not a new talking point. King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia said the same thing in the late 1940s.) His statements were morally outrageous and historically ignorant, but he did not actually call for mass murder (Ariel Sharon made the "occupation regime" in Gaza "vanish" last summer) or for the expulsion of the Israeli Jews to Europe.
So please compare these four passages from (1) Cole's e-mail message to the Gulf 2000 list, (2) Cole's truthdig piece in March 2006, (3) Cole's response to Hitchens in his "Informed Comment" website on Wednesday (May 3, 2006), and (4) Cole's overview of The Middle East and America in 2005, which Cole posted on his "Informed Comment" website on December 30, 2005. Can you spot the differences in substantive arguments and interpretations between these four quotations? I can't.

I could quote or cite other relevant passages from Cole's website and other public statements, but these should be sufficient to establish the point.

=> Establishing this point may or may not have been worth the time and trouble, but there it is. I stand by my bolded statement in my post on Michael Young on Hitchens vs. Cole, quoted above:
Of particular irritation to Cole was that Hitchens used a passage from a letter he sent to the Gulf 2000 mailing list, which is private and where permission must be requested to quote. [JW: Whatever the details here, this particular objection was a bit disingenuous on Cole's part, since he has expressed essentially the same views publicly in his blog and elsewhere. This is a red herring.] That's a reasonable beef from Cole, but he could have responded by simply correcting Hitchens' "inaccurate screed," based on his own declared knowledge of Persian, and asking Slate to publish a rebuttal.
Unfortunately, I know that people don't always read discussions like these very carefully and precisely, especially when passions are running high. So at the risk of being boringly repetitive, I want to spell out once again just what I am saying (and not saying) in this piece.. To make this as unambiguous as I can, I'll just quote what I said above.

---------------
To avoid any possible confusion, we should separate out several distinct questions here. Cole may well have a "reasonable beef" (as Michael Young put it) about being quoted from a restricted e-mail list--this seems plausible to me. And let us even consider hypothetically, for the sake of argument, the possibility that Hitchens's criticisms of Cole's substantive arguments might be incorrect. Even if both of these things were true (and I believe the second is not), that wouldn't affect the points I made in the bracketed statement above.
The question here is whether Hitchens, by quoting this particular passage from Cole's Gulf 2000 message, distorted or misrepresented Cole's substantive positions on the relevant issues. As far as I can tell, the answer is clearly no, and any suggestion otherwise would appear to be without foundation.
All I know about Cole's discussions in the Gulf 2000 list are (a) the passage quoted by Hitchens and (b) another of Cole's Gulf 2000 messages that Cole himself quoted, apparently in full, on his "Informed Comment" website as part of his response to Hitchens ("Hitchens the Hacker; And, Hitchens the Orientalist, And, "We don't Want Your Stinking War!"). Based on these two quotations, which I believe are the only ones in the public domain, it seems clear that the substantive views that Cole has expressed on his website and in other public forums are the same as the views he expressed in these Gulf 2000 messages.
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Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Incidentally, some of the passages from which I quoted above are also relevant to another charge that Cole makes against Hitchens.

Cole in "(Hitchens the Hacker..."):
Hitchens alleges that I said that Khomeini never called for wiping Israel from the face of the map. Actually, I never said anything at all about Khomeini's own speeches or intentions. I was solely discussing Ahmadinejad. Hitchens should please quote me on Khomeini and Israel. He cannot. He is making it up out of whole cloth. He should retract.
Actually, as we have seen, Cole and Hitchens agree that, in Ahmadinejad's speech, Ahmadinejad was referring directly to Khomeini's pronouncements and, in fact, directly quoting a line from Khomeini. Here, to repeat, is what Cole said in his recent response to Hitchens.
But the actual quote, which comes from an old speech of Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all. The second reason is that it is just an inexact translation. The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that "the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time." It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.
This is very clearly a claim about the meaning and implications of Khomeini's original formulation, which Ahmadinejad was explicitly repeating. Cole tells us here that this statement by Khomeini "is not about tanks." It is nothing to worry about, "almost metaphysical." Cole may be right about this, or he may be wrong. But to pretend that he is not making a claim about "Khomeini's own speeches and intentions" here is perplexing, since it is obviously incorrect.

[Update 5/7/06: Mark Liberman compiled a nice collection of some items relevant to this controversy on Language Log. --JW]

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