In a week where Middle Eastern politics fit the front page, it so happens that one of the most educated men in such matters came to Ohio University.
Juan Cole fits the scholarly look, perhaps Harold Ramis-esque from the Ghostbuster days; his circular-framed glasses, the combed-over, greased hairdo, the uncoordinated gesticulations of his hands when describing what he’s passionate about (in this case, the most recent revolution, the Arab Spring): this articulated man fits the profile of a bookworm.
He takes the podium, starts to speak and notices an overwhelming amount of students packed in the theater, he asks people to come up to the front, “We could do a line… well that’s something else, but we could fit more people in up there.” Laughs break out in a room that surely broke fire codes.
Get past the appearance and he’s a brilliant, esteemed history professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in the modern state of the Middle East, one of the most turbulent areas in the world.
Sure he gets fervent about the publication of private information (the pitch of his voice instantly raises several octaves) and laughs at the wittiness of his own political jokes involving former Tunisia leader Ben Ali, but rightfully so; he has drawn interest from political leaders in the Middle East and even back in the U.S.
He writes a Middle Eastern blog called Informed Comment, which draws in hundreds of viewers a day, even more so recently because of the recent uprising in Egypt and neighboring countries sparked by a controversial video containing anti-Muslim remarks concerning Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.
Growing up in parts of the Middle East as an adolescent surely influenced his choice to pursue the modern history of the region. Its importance is evident to Cole, “I think it’s important that we hear from thinkers from the Middle East and we understand their thinking in order to be world citizens.”
He has translated works of a famous Lebanese philosopher into English, which were eventually picked up by Penguin Group and founded the Global Americana Institute, which translates well-known American works into Arabic, such as particular writings of Thomas Jefferson.
He was allegedly targeted by Bush White House officials for his anti-war sentiments, had a New York Times article written about the incident and was denied a tenure position at Yale.
But, as he started his presentation, he noted that he is commonly known for being on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.
Among his years as a historian, scholar, author and professor, he has been noted for controversy he stirs in his writings, especially that critical of the U.S. relations. Yet, he doesn’t seem to have an issue with it, as he rebukes any disapproval he’s received, “It’d be terrible to go to your grave and not have anyone object to what you are doing. It’d be a sign you weren’t up to much.”