Last December, Bernard Haykel was conducting research in India when a fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a small town in Tunisia — a spontaneous response, it appeared, to degrading treatment by the police and a dearth of opportunities available to a young man like himself.
“I heard about it and thought, ‘What an odd thing for an Arab and a Muslim to do,’ because suicide is really prohibited in Islam,” recalls Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies. Yet others emulated Bouazizi in the days that followed.
Frustration long has been both palpable and powerful in the Middle East, particularly among the young, but these suicides were “unprecedented,” Haykel says, “a remarkably shocking symbol of resistance” that said, “my frustration has reached such a level that I’m not willing to live in this world anymore.” Haykel, like many observers, had believed the acts would have little effect on regimes insulated from the plaints of their people by oil money and security services. Instead, Bouazizi’s impetuous act set off a dizzying cascade of uprisings that became the “Arab Spring.”
Haykel had thought change in the Middle East would come violently, if at all — that Islamists, possibly al-Qaida, would drive it. Instead, he says, “You had these mass populist movements that didn’t seem to have an ideology, that didn’t have a leadership, that were not afraid to die, that were calling for individual dignity, freedom — not freedom as we understand political freedom, but freedom from the oppression of the state and the petty oppression of the state — the police, and local corrupt officials — for economic dignity and economic opportunity. It was something we hadn’t seen before.”
The professor didn’t sleep for days, lest he miss something. He was overcome with elation — “but also confusion,” he says. His research slowed. He started thinking about rewriting the syllabi for his courses. “It’s been very distracting from my work,” he says, “but I couldn’t not follow it. I just couldn’t.”
It may have distracted Haykel from the work he was doing, but, in a very real way, this was his work. As a regional specialist, a scholar, a writer, a teacher, and a man of Arab descent, he has been trying to understand, perhaps even prepare for, these kinds of events for a long time.
As the Arab Spring erupted, Haykel was on sabbatical, working on a book that will examine the ways in which Saudi Salafis have exported their faith — and their intolerance — beyond Arabia. Theirs is a puritanical, ultraconservative sect that calls on modern-day Muslims to live and practice as the first three generations of faithful — the Salaf al-salih, or “pious ancestors” — did during and after Muhammad’s lifetime. Though relatively small in number, Salafis are found throughout the Middle East, Arabia, and South Asia. Haykel has been studying them for nearly two decades.
Haykel has a broad array of interests and areas of expertise. A conversation with him could well touch on the origins of Islamic jurisprudence, the balance of power in modern-day Yemen, the role of ecology in regional politics, or al-Qaida’s internal feuds. His research is as likely to involve dissecting pre-modern Arabic texts as tracking online chat rooms used by Islamic militants or interviewing al-Qaida recruiters, and he’s as liable to publish his results in scholarly journals as in major media outlets. It’s his work on Salafis, however, a group that exists simultaneously in the current moment and in centuries long past, that best embodies his approach: constant movement between yesteryear and the present day, and a prevailing belief that they’re not as far apart as it first would seem.
“I’m a polyglot,” says Haykel, a child of multiple cultures and multiple identities. He was born in Beirut in 1968. Both his French-Lebanese father, who was raised in Guadeloupe, and his mother, who is American, visited Lebanon for the first time on their honeymoon; captivated by the place, they decided to stay. Their idyll was shattered when civil war erupted when Bernard was 7. Haykel’s father, a surgeon, saw the conflict’s toll every day, while his son saw firsthand how religion could impact daily life when Islamic fundamentalists took over their hometown, Tripoli, and then again, from a remove, when Islamic radicals seized control of Iran in 1979.
In 1984, after Haykel stumbled into a firefight and was nearly killed, his parents sent him to the United States to finish high school. Georgetown followed, then Oxford, where an interest in diplomacy morphed into a fascination with Middle Eastern scholarship. One mentor, Wilferd Madelung, stressed the study of original texts. Another, Paul Dresch, believed social anthropology was key to understanding cultures. Haykel thought both were correct and began applying their methods to field research in Yemen and the study of the Zaydi Shia sect. He says he found Yemen “intoxicating.”
He soon began delving into the life of Muhammad al-Shawkani, an 18th-century Salafi who urged the Muslims of his day to look to the original texts — the Koran and the hadiths, or sayings of the prophet Muhammad — rather than imams and latter-day interpreters to find Islam in its purest form. Haykel’s dissertation became his best-known book, Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkani, which shows how al-Shawkani and other Salafis propagated a rigid, radical movement designed to recapture the most unadulterated expression of Islam and to re-educate or expel wayward Muslims — particularly the Shia, whom they viewed as apostates of the worst kind.
To this day, Haykel wrote in 2009, Salafis “seek to reform other Muslims to their own version of Islam, ideally through missionary work but in some cases” — al-Qaida in particular — “through violent action.” The book Haykel is writing contends that despite its focus on Muslims who lived more than 1,000 years ago, the creed is suited to modern Muslims who want something pure, uncorrupted, and ostensibly incorruptible. Salafist belief is anti-hierarchical and thus, Haykel argues, highly appealing to people who grew up under indomitable political hierarchies in the years after secular Arab nationalism failed to deliver on its promises. (There are similarities, he says, to the Tea Party’s harkening back to an imagined “pure” American-ness of the founding fathers.)
He also has written about Salafism’s influence on modern politics; the virulent form practiced by al-Qaida leaders like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who targeted Shiites in Iraq; and the manner in which it undermined al-Qaida’s ability to claim a broad constituency. In 2008, he wrote that he’d interviewed a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden who said that “these younger militants were out of control, unprincipled, uneducated in Islamic law, and incapable of assessing what was in the best interests of the Muslims.” That new breed, he continued, likely would pull further away from the leadership in Pakistan and seek to launch their own attacks on the West — which is precisely what happened.
Collectively, the work earned Haykel a reputation as a versatile scholar who combines classical knowledge with on-the-ground research and access to people who otherwise might not receive a Western academic too warmly. “He is one of the very few people in the world who straddles two connected but very different disciplines: the classical study of Islam — Islamology, if you will — on the one hand, and then contemporary Middle East politics on the other,” says Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and a 2007 postdoctoral fellow at Princeton.
“There are a lot of discussions in Washington that bounce around with the same information because people don’t have unique sources,” says Jon B. Alterman ’87, a former State Department official who directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What Bernie brings in is an entirely different data set.”