The impresario: Gilles Kepel, scholar of radical Islam

The impresario: Gilles Kepel, scholar of radical Islam

Over the years, Gilles Kepel established himself as one of the foremost analysts of the era’s most worried-over political phenomenon. AFP

Gilles Kepel looked tired. The French scholar of radical Islam – chronicler of jihad, counselor to foreign ministers, best-selling author and academic entrepreneur – was half-seated, half-sprawled on a high-backed sofa in his five-star hotel suite, awaiting a string of visitors. To his right, an end table was cluttered with empty bottles from the minibar – the detritus of a worknight that had concluded at around 4am. To his left, the room’s only light spilled in from a full-length window, its curtains drawn open to the late afternoon Dubai sun.

It was late December, and Kepel was in the midst of a barnstorming trip through the region, which had already taken him to Riyadh, Bahrain and Kuwait, largely to raise money for his small empire of academic concerns. Kepel chairs the renowned Middle East and Mediterranean Studies programme at Sciences Po in Paris, which he has expanded and elevated into one of the world’s great launchpads for the careers of bright young scholars writing about the Near East – with the Gulf as a particular focus. Building the institution, however, has required a wearying and peripatetic regimen of cultivating donors. “We academics are a begging order,” Kepel said from his sunken position on the sofa, dressed elegantly in a pale gray suit. “Like the Capuchins in the Middle Ages.” 

Opinions of Kepel diverge rather sharply among his fellow academics, but they agree on at least one point: he has always had a quality of relentlessness about him. At an earlier moment in his career – Kepel turned 55 in June – the cluttered room would have been in Cairo, and he would have been preoccupied with the logistical headaches of collecting leaflets from the militant group al Gama’a al Islamiyya and then finding ways to smuggle the illicit literature out of Egypt. That research led to his 1984 book Le Prophete et Pharaon (later published in English as Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharoah), a groundbreaking account of what was then still a novel phenomenon to the West: radical Islamist political movements. The book was Kepel’s doctoral dissertation; it came out when he was just 29 years old.

In the years and decades that followed, Kepel established himself as one of the foremost analysts of the era’s most worried-over political phenomenon. He did so primarily through his writing – first purely academic work, then books that reached progressively wider audiences, often uncannily in tune with current events. In France, his work The Revenge of God became a major best-seller when it was released the month after the first Gulf War broke out in 1991. In the English-speaking world, Kepel surged into prominence when his magnum opus, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, appeared in translation a few months after September 11, 2001. The book was a masterfully comprehensive analysis of Islamism’s spread across the Muslim world. The panicked public demand for studies of jihadism turned the 500-page doorstop of French political sociology into bedtime reading for thousands of Americans.

Families of missing victims of terrorism in Algiers. Kepel believes that Radical Islamists have excelled at alienating their potential constituents at home. AFP

More than many academics, Kepel is a smooth and media-savvy figure, adept at packaging arguments and at ease in proximity to power. “Not only a leading scholar but a man of the world”, was how the historian Walter Laqueur described him in the period that followed September 11. “In one week,” Kepel recalls, “I would be in Washington seeing Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz, then I would be in Gaza talking to Mahmoud al Zahar [a co-founder of Hamas] and then in Lebanon being taken to see Sheikh Naim Qasim [the deputy secretary-general of Hizbullah].”

By the time he reached his fifties, the French professor had attained a rather unique and somewhat fraught status in the politically charged western discourse on radical Islam: no one who was more visible was more knowledgeable, and no one who was more knowledgeable was more visible. That profile has won him a large audience but few friends. In the eyes of some American pundits and think-tank intellectuals – especially chauvinists of the “clash of civilisations” school – Kepel is a hair-splitter who is hopelessly soft on Islam, while some of his fellow academics accuse him of essentialising his Muslim subjects, condescending to them from an attitude of western superiority and attempting to monopolise the field. All the same, a number of his peers see considerable value in his published contributions to a public discussion that has often careened into hysteria. “If he doesn’t do it,” says James Piscatori, the chair of Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs, “then somebody else will do it worse.”     


Housekeeping rang. Looking up, Kepel directed the cleaners to the bedroom while he began collating bundles of paper on the suite’s coffee table. These were the fruits of his all-nighter. He and his staff had been up finalising a tentative programme for a conference called the EuroGolfe Forum – a kind of would-be Davos for EU-Middle East relations that Kepel has been putting on every year or so since 2005. The first draft of the programme, which he leafed through distractedly, was studded with the boldfaced names of EU ministers, university presidents and Gulf sheikhs.

For the first time in ages, Kepel did not have a new book in the works. Over the past five years, he has orchestrated a dramatic shift in his career, one that has involved putting his own writing on hold. He has set out instead, as he puts it, to reinvest the social capital he has accumulated as a one-man brand into building up a new generation of scholars and institutions. The result has been a furious burst of academic entrepreneurship – one every bit as remarkable as Kepel’s success as a writer – which has also seen his attention shift dramatically to the Gulf.

Kepel lecturing at the London School of Economics. Leila Ghandi

In his last book – 2008’s Beyond Terror and Martyrdom – Kepel effectively delivered his final word on the topics of the American Global War on Terror and al Qa’eda’s global jihad, describing them as two equally bankrupt “grand narratives” locked in a wretched symbiosis. Then the book launched into an uplifting final section that sketched out a vision of peaceful and prosperous integration between the oil-rich Gulf, the capitals of Europe and the struggling nations of the Levant and North Africa. “Europe and the Gulf states have no other viable option but to accept the challenge of building a hybrid civilisation together, stretching from the North Sea to the Gulf, via the Mediterranean hub,” he wrote, essentially echoing the themes of his EuroGolfe conference. “This entails not only the movement of capital, goods and services, but also massive investment in the education of younger generations and a shared management of culture.” Suddenly the consummate expert on unrest was offering blueprints for a renaissance – and between the lines it seemed possible to detect the faint signature of a fund-raising pitch.

Like most western Arabists who made their careers in the old cities of the Levant and North Africa, Kepel is a relative newcomer to the Gulf. But his recent focus on the region is a natural move for an enterprising academic: the Gulf has rapidly emerged as a global commercial hub as well as a major fulcrum in the neighbourhood geopolitics of the Middle East; at the same time,

for anyone conducting social science research, it is still a largely unmarked frontier. In the academic literature on the Middle East, the Gulf was for years a scholarly desert. The region’s closed societies, oral cultures, and autocratic regimes left scholars with few documents to study and little access to those that did exist. French research on the region was especially thin. Prior to 2001, Kepel says, the last French social scientific book on Arabia had been published in 1982.

Then shortly after the turn of the millennium, Riyadh’s King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies opened to foreign scholars, offering them help in procuring visas, office space and other support. Before that, Saudi Arabia had been virtually closed to foreign researchers. The move prompted a “big bang moment in Gulf studies,” says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. (An academic big bang can involve only a handful of researchers.) Scholars like David Commins, F Gregory Gause and Steffen Hertog flocked to the centre and began conducting research. But perhaps no one seized the opportunity more than Kepel, who rather quickly dispatched four of his best PhD students to Saudi Arabia for their dissertations. Two of them, Thomas Hegghammer and Stephan Lacroix, have since published major books on the Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, he set several other students to work elsewhere around the under-studied region, including a number in the UAE.

Doing so has required Kepel to branch out significantly from the traditional networks and structures of French academe. Kepel has been an aggressive recruiter of PhD students, which has entailed being equally aggressive in securing research funding far beyond what is publicly available – often from corporations and oil-rich states in the region. He has also opened doors for his students on the ground in order to find them bases of operation and networks of sources for their research in territory where few researchers have been before. Traditionally, French scholars in the Middle East have operated largely out of a framework of formidable research centres in the country’s old colonial preserves: the French institutes in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a. But that framework has left most of the Gulf off the map for the country’s academics.

And so, by many accounts, Kepel’s network has greatly expanded France’s reach in a region where it traditionally had few ties. “At Oxford, we were lamenting the fact that the Gulf, which once had been a British preserve, had now become quite an object of French interest,” says James Piscatori. “And Kepel is the one who pioneered all that.”

Nevertheless, in France, Kepel’s vigorous entrepreneurship has often been regarded as trop Americain. In what the Saudi-British scholar Madawi al Rasheed has called the “industry” of terrorism studies, Kepel has become something of a titan. Some critics have accused him and his students of hewing too closely to the narrowly topical and highly instrumentalised field of “jihadi studies”. Others say Kepel and his protégés have tried to overshadow the research others are doing in the Gulf. “They pretend that they work on a tabula rasa,” says Pascal Menoret, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton who has also researched and written about Saudi Arabia. (Kepel and Menoret share an ugly history that bears mentioning: In 2002, Menoret circulated a harshly critical satire of Kepel by e-mail, which eventually found its way to the inboxes of most French academics in the field. Menoret later posted the email online. Then in 2008, at an annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington DC, Kepel physically confronted Menoret, who had shown up at a party Kepel was hosting. A scuffle and much shouting ensued, and the police arrived at the scene. Kepel calls it a “little incident”; Menoret was not injured, and declined to press charges.) In short, what academics make of Kepel’s recent work seems to depend on whether they see it as an effort to expand the field of knowledge – or to own it by other means. 


The doorbell rang again at Kepel’s suite, marking the arrival of Abdul Rahman al Rashed, the head of Al Arabiya TV, who had come to discuss how his station would cover Kepel’s EuroGolfe conference.

Kepel wanted Al Arabiya to host a panel discussion, to be broadcast across the region. Tentative title: “Thicker than oil: Building EU-GCC trust”. “I think this is very good,” al Rashed muttered as he perused one of the programmes. 

“What I’ve noticed all over the region for the last six days,” Kepel went on, “in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, here: they all told me they have this terrible problem that the GCC is a pole within a multipolar world, that the US is still very necessary, but that it is not sufficient any more, that the projection of blunt power had proved a catastrophe in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they need to make bilateral ties for their own protection – they have to find out what kind of bilateral relations are important to them and how they can function with them, whether they be with China or Europe.”

By Kepel’s own account, his successes as an academic – and his interest in the Middle East – were all born of early trauma and failure. In 1974, when Kepel was 19, his mother was killed in an car accident. Soon after, he took the entrance exams for France’s elite grande école system – a rite of passage in the French meritocracy whose significance is difficult to overstate. (“In France, families celebrate acceptance at a grande école more than graduation itself,” Richard Descoings, Sciences Po’s president, recently told the New York Times. “Once you pass the exam at 18 or 19, for the rest of your life, you belong.”) Kepel bombed.

“The circumstances of my mother’s death were quite harsh,” he recalls now. “My father was driving and speeding as he always did. It sort of distracted my attention. This is not the reason why I failed miserably at the concours d’entrer. It was my own limitations. But nevertheless I was not in the mood.”

In school that year, Kepel had devoted himself to studying the Classics. “All over the blackboard was a map of the Roman Empire,” he recalls, “with the names of the old cities: Palmyra, Theba, Athens, Caeseria, Antioch.” Inspired by that map, Kepel decided to go with a friend to the old cities of the Near East. They travelled to the Eastern Mediterannean, hitchhiked across Turkey, and made their way through Syria and Egypt. Only after his return, Kepel says, did the enormity of this mother’s death sink in. “My life was a total disaster. And the only thing to which I could cling – that had brought me pleasure,” he says, “was the Middle East.”

Kepel decided to become an Arabist. At first his ambitions were to study the Middle Ages; the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus was his first love. “Then I discovered that this would compel me to live a life of poverty,” he says, “and that no one would be interested in a guy like that, I would find no job if I specialised in the late Middle Ages, and girls would never look at me,” he says, seemingly only half in jest. So he switched to political science, and before long the Enneads of Plotinus were replaced by the Milestones of Sayid Qutb.

In a way that is somehow typical of orphans and those acquainted with early failure, Kepel’s hapless path into the profession has produced the most restless of academics. “The man works more than anyone I know,” says Thomas Hegghammer, a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study who completed his PhD on Jihadism in Saudi Arabia under Kepel in 2007. “He sleeps literally four or five hours a day and has done so at least since he started rising in the ranks in the Eighties. He lives and breathes for his job.”

Kepel’s own account of his motivations is curious for a man who has chafed so much against the French system (“France does not really have the capacity to sustain ambitious programmes,” he says). Kepel’s father is from the former Czechoslovakia. “Being someone who has a Czech name,” he says, “you always feel indebted to France, which has given you civilisation.” Helping to create a body of groundbreaking scholarly work in his mother tongue, he says, is “the little brick that I put in the crumbling wall of Francophonie.” 


In one somewhat famous respect, the English release of Kepel’s major work Jihad so soon after the attacks of September 11 was as awkward as it was opportune. Kepel’s thesis was that Islamism – defined as a project to establish Islamist nation-states – was a movement on its last legs. Not surprisingly, this was not the easiest argument to swallow for Western audiences, who had just witnessed al Qa’eda execute the largest foreign attack on American soil since the War of 1812.

What Kepel offered, however, was an analysis of politics on the ground. Islamist movements had succeeded, he wrote, when they managed to forge a fragile political bond at home between the urban poor and the pious bourgeoisie, mediated by a cadre of Islamist intellectuals. But throughout the 1990s, such coalitions – which struggled to balance the often radical proclivities of the first group against the fundamentally conservative interests of the second – frayed again and again, especially as the region filled with the “free electrons of jihad”: the professional mujaheddin who had returned from the holy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, “no longer bound by local political contingencies” and with “no responsibilities to any social group”.

“The waning of the movement’s capacity for political mobilisation explains why such spectacular and devastating new forms of terrorism have now been visited on the American homeland,” Kepel wrote in his introduction to the English edition of Jihad. “September 11 was an attempt to reverse a process in decline with a paroxysm of destructive violence.”

In the myopia of the moment, the thesis seemed impossibly sanguine. Some commentators even faulted Kepel, who was after all a so-called expert on the roots of radical Islam, for failing to predict – or at least failing to anticipate – the attacks. And yet with a few exceptions – the election of Hamas, for instance – the thesis of Jihad has borne out relatively well. Radical Islamists still pose a threat, but politically they have excelled mainly at alienating their potential constituents at home. Their operational context has shifted from the nation-state to the more nebulous realm of online communities and the “global umma”, where every jihadist, in a sense, is a free electron. This new phase seems fairly contiguous with Kepel’s account of 10 years ago. 

As it happens, the book that may have been more ill-timed was 2008’s Beyond Terror and Martyrdom. With its expansive (and, perhaps more to the point, expensive) visions of transnational prosperity built on a latticework of new institutions, the book – in hindsight – exudes an unmistakable boomtime sensibility.

The financial collapse has not been kind to Kepel’s nontraditional academic machine. Most of his private funding sources have dried up, he says. “The big corporations and the others who are interested in having a renewal of the studies of the region are now living under conditions dictated by their financial directors,” he says. “The ones who are polite give me a ring. Others don’t say anything.”

This year’s EuroGolfe Forum was scheduled to take place in March but was postponed. It may yet occur in November. But even if it does, Kepel says, it will probably be the last edition of the conference. 

The professor himself, meanwhile, is near burnout. This year he supervised 12 PhD students through the defence of their dissertations – a huge number – while scrambling to find new funding sources and maintain old ones. “I can’t tell you how exhausted I am. I wake up every morning between 2 and 3,” he said recently over the phone from Paris. “I can’t do it anymore.” His period of high-octane entrepreneurship, he says, is over. And so he is going back to basics.

Over the past few weeks, Kepel has begun work on a new book. It will revisit the territory of his second published volume, Les Banlieues d’Islam, which presented a sociological study of the Muslim suburbs of Paris in the late 1980s. Kepel has chosen to return to his least-translated work – and his most French. He will not leave the Gulf altogether – he still has students working in the region – but until a “new model” for sustaining his academic efforts here arises, he will focus his energies elsewhere, and closer to home. “I’ll fly Etihad and Emirates a little less,” he says, “and I’ll ride the subway a little more.”

John Gravois is a former senior editor at The Review.