Agreeing to write an essay for PAW about the Islamic State, or ISIS, Professor Bernard Haykel stressed that he is a scholar without an agenda. He calls things the way he sees them, he said — even if people aren’t happy hearing it.
That was not surprising. A few days earlier, an article about ISIS by Graeme Wood had appeared in The Atlantic, quoting Haykel extensively. Haykel often is cited as the world’s leading expert on ISIS thought. For two decades, he has been studying Salafism, which argues Islam has grown decadent and calls for a return to the old ways of the faith, based on original teachings and texts. Wood’s article suggested that ISIS was “very Islamic,” despite the insistence of others — including President Barack Obama — that ISIS represents “violent extremism,” not Islam.
A wave of criticism followed publication of Wood’s article. “When people think of extremism as some kind of organic expression of Islam, the belligerence of radical Muslims starts to seem like an autonomous, intrinsically motivated force — something whose momentum doesn’t derive from mundane socioeconomic and geopolitical factors. It’s something that you can stop, if at all, only with physical counter-force. In other words: by killing lots of people,” wrote Robert Wright ’79 in a New Yorker article headlined: “The Clash of Civilizations That Isn’t.”
In an interview with Jack Jenkins of the ThinkProgress website, Haykel provided nuance to Wood’s article. Asked whether Islamic texts lead directly to groups like ISIS, Haykel said they did not. He also said that he considered people who have criticized ISIS “to be fully within the Islamic tradition, and in no way ‘less Muslim’ than ISIS.” Islamic law, he said, has “a multiplicity of views and opinions.”
Many commentators said they wished Haykel’s views had come through directly, unfiltered through a journalist. On page 20, they do.