Cole was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His father served in the United States Army Signal Corps. When Cole was age two, his family left New Mexico for France. His father completed two tours with the U.S. military in France (a total of seven years) and one 18-month stay at Kagnew Station in Asmara, Eritrea (then Ethiopia). (Cole reports that he first became interested in Islam in Eritrea, which has a population roughly half Christian and half Muslim.) Cole was schooled at a variety of locations, twelve schools in twelve years, at a series of dependent schools on military bases but also sometimes in civilian schools. Some schooling occurred in the United States, particularly in North Carolina and California.
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, Lebanon 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 master's 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 became a full professor in 1995.
Cole was from a mixed Catholic and Protestant heritage but was brought up a non-denominational Protestant on army bases. In the late 1960s and the 1970s he became interested in Eastern religions, including Buddhism. 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 faith in 1996 after disputes with Bahá'í leadership concerning the Bahá'í system of administration, particularly the requirement to review works by Bahá'í authors when writing about the religion. He later became uninterested in organized religion as a personal matter.
Cole married 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). In 1991 he held a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for the study of Shia Islam in Iran. 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 and on the editorial board of the journal Iranian Studies. He is a member of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and served as the organization's president for 2006. In 2006, he received the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism administered by Hunter College.1975: B.A. History and Literature of Religions, Northwestern University
1978: M.A. Arabic Studies/History, American University in Cairo
1984: Ph.D. Islamic Studies, University of California Los Angeles
1984–1990: Assistant Professor of History, University of Michigan
1990–1995: Associate Professor of History, University of Michigan
1992–1995: Director, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan
1995–2007: Professor of History, University of Michigan
2007–present: Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan
2009–2012: Director, Center for South Asian Studies, University of Michigan
Cole became interested in Islam and Arabic while a teenager living in Eritrea when his father was stationed there. He studied Arabic at Northwestern University, in Beirut, at the American University in Cairo, and at the University of California, Los Angeles; his study included classical historical, theological and philosophical texts and classical and modern literature. He speaks Arabic (Modern Standard as well as Lebanese and Egyptian dialects), Persian, and Urdu, and can read Ottoman Turkish. He also knows French, German and Spanish.
Among Cole's major academic specializations has been the history of modern Egypt, including Sunni Islam. His second monograph was on the nineteenth-century ‘Urabi Revolt, and his fifth was on the French invasion and occupation of the country under Napoleon. Egypt was one focus of his Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave, 2009). He has authored nearly a dozen major journal articles and book chapters on Egypt.
Modern Shia Islam has been a major preoccupation in Cole's scholarship. The Shia Crescent runs 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. His first monograph was on the modern history of Shi'a Islam in North India. His fourth book was a treatment of modern Shi'i movements throughout South and Western Asia. He has published over two dozen journal articles and book chapters on modern Shia Islam.
After September 11, 2001, Cole turned increasingly to writing on radical Muslim movements, the Iraq War, United States foreign policy, and the Iran crisis. His scholarship was influenced by his blog, "Informed Comment", founded in 2002. He has pioneered in the field of what he calls not "contemporary history" but "current affairs history". See also "The Case for Current Affairs History"
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. One of these, Broken Wings (al-Ajnihah al-Mutakassira, 1912), is alleged to have been the first Arabic-language novel, and has early feminist themes, protesting against arranged marriage and religious corruption.
After September 11, Cole founded the Global Americana Institute to translate works concerning the United States into Arabic. The first volume was selected works of Thomas Jefferson, translated for the first time into Arabic, and the second is a translation of a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. along with selected speeches and writings (scheduled for fall 2012). The Institute is partnering with Dar al-Saqi books in this series. Cole has successfully solicited contributions through his website to support the translations and publications.
Cole converted to the Bahá'í Faith in 1972, but later resigned in 1996 after conflicts with members of the Bahá'í administration who perceived him as extreme and threatened him with a Bahá'í version of excommunication. Cole went on to critically attack the Bahá'í Faith in several books and articles written from 1998-2000, describing a prominent Bahá'í as "inquisitor" and "bigot", and describing Bahá'í institutions as socially isolating, dictatorial, and controlling, with financial irregularities and sexual deviance.
Soon after his resignation, Cole created an email list and website called H-Bahai, which became a repository of both primary source material and critical analysis on the religion.
Before resigning, Cole had several works published through Bahá'í publishers and co-edited an online journal (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 has written a great deal of journalism, although much more in the form of commentary than direct news gathering. From 2004 to 2009, Cole had a regular column at Salon. Since 2009, he has written semi-regularly for Truthdig and Tom Engelhardt's Tomdispatch.com.
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
Cole has been a regular guest on The NewsHour at the PBS, and has appeared widely on television shows such as Nightline, ABC Evening News, the Today Show, Anderson Cooper 360°, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Al Jazeera and CNN Headline News. Charlie Rose, Fareed Zakaria GPS, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Colbert Report, Democracy Now! and many others.
With regard to radio, he has also been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has been interviewed by Ian Masters (KPFK), and has been interviewed by Terry Gross ("Fresh Air") and Diane Rehm, among many others.
Cole was occasionally cited in the press as a Middle East expert in the 1990s. He became much more prominent after 2002, when he began publishing his weblog.
From 2002 onwards, Cole became a widely recognized public intellectual. Foreign Policy commented in 2004, "Cole's transformation into a public intellectual embodies many of the dynamics that have heightened the impact of the blogosphere. He wanted to publicize his expertise, and he did so by attracting attention from elite members of the blogosphere. As Cole made waves within the virtual world, others in the real world began to take notice".
His focus has primarily been Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and the Arab Spring. He has also occasionally written or given interviews about Israel and the Palestinians.
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 was 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 that same article, he was referred to as a public intellectual by associate professor of culture and communication at New York University Siva Vaidhyanathan.
In 2004, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations requested Cole's testimony at hearings to better understand the situation in Iraq.
Cole is an avid science fiction fan and has a strong personal interest in human rights issues.
Generally speaking, Cole approaches the Middle East and Western Asia from the point of view of anti-imperialism. 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 tends to value multinational (and especially UN) initiatives over unilateral military ones. He favors multi-ethnic states over separatist movements. Given his background in the 1960s and 1970s religious counter-culture, he views Islam (along with other religions) as essentially good, but distorted by certain of its political appropriators (and critics).
Cole mastered Persian in the 1970s and 1980s and has written academically on Iran's early modern and modern history, including the Qajar period and the Islamic Republic from 1979.
Cole supported the reformist president Mohammad Khatami and rued his succession by 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 viewed the 2009 presidential election as having been stolen by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Cole wrote numerous posts warning that the Bush administration was attempting to create a war with Iran. He suggested that sabre-rattling offered a way for two unpopular regimes to attract nationalistic support. He has also speculated that the Bush administration's objective in Iran was to control future supplies of oil and natural gas, while denying them to energy-hungry China and India.
On the nuclear issue, Cole wrote in 2007 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 dismissed the Bush administration's allegation that Iran has supported terrorism in Iraq or Afghanistan, arguing rather that the United States had lent support to anti-Iranian terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Free Life Party.
Cole chastised several U.S. presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney, for making bellicose statements about Iran in order to present themselves in a tougher or more conservative light.
Cole is also a vocal critic of President Ahmadinejad. He has written that "I profoundly disagree with his characterization of Israel, which is a legitimate United Nations member state". He also considers Ahmadinejad's holocaust denial to be "monstrous".
Ahmadinejad's remarks on Israel
Cole and Christopher Hitchens have traded barbs regarding the translation and meaning of a passage referring to Israel in a speech by Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fathi Nazila of The New York Times's Tehran bureau translated the passage as "Our dear Imam [Khomeini] said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map."
In an article published at the Slate 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 e-mails from an on-line discussion group.
Cole was asked to address the pros and cons of the building war against Iraq in January 2003 for the journal of the University of Michigan International Institute. He warned that any invasion of Iraq would inevitably be rejected by Iraqis and the Arab world as a form of neocolonialism. He wrote, "The Sunnis of Iraq could well turn to groups like al-Qaida, having lost the ideals of the Baath. Iraqi Shi'ites might become easier to recruit into Khomeinism of the Iranian sort, and become a bulwark for the shaky regime in Shi'ite Iran." Considering the problem of ethnic politics, he said, "A post-war Iraq may well be riven with factionalism that impedes the development of a well-ensconced new government." He rejected the argument that Baathist Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" or backing of terrorism posed threats to the United States. Cole admitted that he had had "mixed feelings" on the issue—i.e., he opposed Saddam Hussein's regime, but feared disaster and opposed international illegality. He was insistent that any war would be illegal without a UN Security Council resolution (which was not obtained by the Bush administration). His position on the war resembled that of the French government, which is generally held to have opposed it. By January 2003, he said he had become "cynical" about the Bush administration motives for the war. On the day of the U.S. invasion Cole wrote that "for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that are about to be made on all sides." He has explained that this posting was not intended to show support for the invasion: "The passage quoted ... was not about whether the war was legal or not. Being from a military family, it mattered to me as an ethical issue whether troops lives were being lost for no good reason, in an illegal boondoggle. I decided on careful deliberation that even though the war was wrong, the lives lost would not be in vain, since a tyrannical regime would have fallen. To say that some good could come of an illegal act is not to endorse the illegal act."
Cole blamed 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 missionize Iraq"; Karl Rove's wanting to "turn Bush into a war president" to ensure re-election; and neo-conservatives who hoped to transform the Middle East and remove what they perceived as a danger to Israel. The Bush administration's focus on purported weapons of mass destruction, he added, was an attempt to find a rationale acceptable to the public.
Cole rejects the Bush administrations early claims of Iraqi cooperation with Al-Qaeda, 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, in 2007 stated 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."
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 Douglas J. Feith have dual loyalties to America and the Likud party of Israel.
Cole opposes boycotts of Israeli academics because he believes that the academic community in Israel is mostly opposed to the policies of the Likud.
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 dismissed 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. Cole later criticized Bush for leaving the job half finished in Afghanistan to go off and fight in Iraq.
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."
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 president Camille Chamoun a second term. (Chamoun had apparently persuaded 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.
Cole often points out the incongruity of the U.S. allying itself with offshoots of the Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq but vehemently opposing Hezbollah in Lebanon.
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 opposed the Pervez Musharraf regime, which he blames for cracking down on democracy activists, while simultaneously allowing Islamists based in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) 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 Laden. (The operation had been urged by President Bill Clinton, and if successful, might have prevented the September 11 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 is also on the Editorial Board of Pakistaniaat.
Cole's wife Shahin received her legal education in Lahore, Pakistan, and has also written against Musharraf's crackdown.
Cole supported what he described as "the UNSC-authorized intervention" in Libya in 2011 by NATO, and criticized those on the Left who did not. When Cole was asked in 2015 how he felt about the results of the intervention, he said, "It wasn't an intervention, it was a revolution. Revolutions are messy. It turned out better than Syria, where there wasn't a significant intervention."
In 2011, James Risen reported in The New York Times that, "Glenn L. Carle, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who was a top counterterrorism official during the administration of President George W. Bush, said the White House at least twice asked intelligence officials to gather sensitive information" on Cole "in order to discredit him". "In an interview, Mr. Carle said his supervisor at the National Intelligence Council told him in 2005 that White House officials wanted 'to get' Professor Cole, and made clear that he wanted Mr. Carle to collect information about him, an effort Mr. Carle rebuffed. Months later, Mr. Carle said, he confronted a C.I.A. official after learning of another attempt to collect information about Professor Cole. Mr. Carle said he contended at the time that such actions would have been unlawful."
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 in favor, seven opposed, and three 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 M. 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 not 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?"
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 replied 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. 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.
Jeremy Sapienza of Antiwar.com has criticized Cole for what he deems as partisan bias on issues of war and peace, noting his support for wars supported by the Democratic party such as in the Balkans and Libya while opposing Republican wars such as Iraq.
John Walsh and editor/commentator Alexander Cockburn have described Cole as being an advisor to the CIA and Walsh referred to Cole as a "humanitarian hawk". In response to Walsh's charges, Cole said that he was never a consultant to the CIA, but did give talks at events sponsored by think tanks at which a range of US government officials were present, including CIA analysts.
David North has strongly criticized Cole's defense of the US/NATO Libyan intervention, claiming an inconsistency between Cole's 2006 opposition to the "wholesale destruction of all of Lebanon by Israel and the US Pentagon" as part of a broader strategy to acquire control of the major sources of oil and natural gas, and Cole's 2011 statement that "I haven't seen the war-for-oil argument made for Libya in a manner that makes any sense at all."