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Academia & Activism, Dr H.A. Hellyer

A scholar focusing on politics, international relations, and faith, in the West and the Arab world, Dr H.A. Hellyer FRSA is a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a fellow of the Centre for Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, and Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

A widely published author of 7 books and 5 monographs, Dr Hellyer was elected as Fellow (FRSA) of the Royal Society of Arts in London due to his contribution to scholarship. He was previously nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution in DC, Research Associate at Harvard, and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.

Dr Hellyer draws on his experience living in MENA, Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, and his background as a multiracial British citizen of English, Egyptian, Sudanese, and Moroccan background, leading him to research topics such as religious diversity in the United States, populism in Europe, MENA geopolitics, and radical populist movements in religious communities in Southeast Asia. His analysis is regularly featured in leading outlets such as the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, the New York Times, the Guardian, Politico, and the Financial Times.

We talk to Dr Hellyer about his journey into academia and whether the arts have the capacity to facilitate social change.

What was your journey to a career in academia and what led you to your interests?

It’s not the most typical of routes, and I didn’t really stay in academia completely - rather, I’ve always had a foot in and a foot out. I had read for my bachelor’s degree in Law at Sheffield in the UK, acquired something of an interest in political science, and also decided I wasn’t quite ready to stop my education. So, I thought I’d try to get a PhD, but only if I didn’t have to pay for it – in other words, if I got a scholarship. Sheffield’s politics department was the top-rated in the country at the time, and it made sense to stay and do my master’s degree there, and then go on to my PhD if I were able to get funding.

I was drawn to two places, with two supervisors – one was Warwick University, where the late Muhammad Anwar, one of the leading experts on minority communities in Europe, was at – the other was Oxford University, where James Piscatori was working at the time. I remember having lunch with Jim, as he later became known to me, as a friend and academic colleague, and he told me if I got funding at Warwick, I ought to go to Warwick, as it was probably better than Oxford. Ironically, Jim ended up being my external examiner for my PhD a few years later, and also wrote very kind recommendations for several of my books – a very decent, scholarly gentleman, whom I am pleased to have known now for more than twenty years. Professor Anwar, God rest his soul, passed away in 2020 – I wouldn’t want to underestimate his impact on me, so I’d direct people to this obituary I wrote for him then.

So, that’s how I ended up doing my PhD – I got funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, which was very rare, and so I thought I’d better take it. It also meant I could stay within higher education longer, rather than figuring out what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life (I was 21 after all) – but it didn’t necessarily mean I’d made a choice to become an academic, per se. I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead in such certain terms. I wasn’t opposed to a career in academia, but I wasn’t wedded to one either, and I think that made a world of difference when I did finally begin my career. I’ve gone into more detail with E-International Relations my views on international relations, which was one of the academic fields I focused on.

But in a nutshell, that’s how I started, looking at how politics, society, and faith, engage with each other, minorities and majorities alike, and trying to understand that.

Did your own personal background play a role in that regard?

Well, yes, in that it informed my interests when it came to geographic areas, but also themes. Area-wise, I focus on both the West, and I focus on Muslim majority countries. Although I’m a British son of an English father, I was born in the Arab world, to an Arab mother, and my upbringing was between different Arab countries, as well as England – so, naturally, I took an interest in the lived experience of Muslim communities. Thematically, I look at security studies, politics, and geopolitics - all things that impacted me personally, and that I was exposed to a lot as a youngster with a cosmopolitan upbringing.

Coming from a multi-religious background, I was interested in religious studies more generally, and Islamic studies particularly. I also took a great interest in minority studies, and focused on that during my bachelor’s and master’s studies, including Christian minorities in Muslim majority states, and Muslim minorities in places like Russia. There is something quite illuminating about the treatment of vulnerable minorities – a society’s conduct in that regard shows how principled and ethical society actually is.

Do you think the arts have the capacity to create social change?

That’s more a question for Bayt al-Fann! Having said that, literary arts are considered to be part of the arts more generally, and as an author, I partake in that. I do think that arts have the capacity to create social change, but I’m not one of those who engages in writing always for social change. We can all have different intentions when we write. It’s not always for the same thing. That’s not to say that the choice is between ethical and unethical writing – I think the choice should always be to be ethical in one’s writing – but it’s not always about trying to effect social change. Indeed, some of the best writing I’ve ever seen, and some of my own writing that I personally like the best, hasn’t been with the intention of creating social change. And yet, it stands the test of time, and moves people in very profound ways.

But I have to say: It is not enough to describe. It is not enough to deconstruct. It is imperative to do both but to also build, on the basis of ethics and principles. To do otherwise is a betrayal of the conviction of scholarship.

“Muslims of Europe” - Dr Hellyer’s book on the subject. Reviews by John Esposito, John Voll, Tariq Modood, and others here.

Do you think the Muslim identity in the West is racialized?

That’s a very interesting question, and one I’ve been pondering a lot over my career. On the one hand, Muslim communities are definitely racialized, if by that one means that their treatment – particularly when they are minorities – by their opponents is racialized. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that – Muslims are essentially thought of, by their opponents, as a ‘race’ – a race with markers and symbols, and anti-Muslim bigotry is structurally very similar, if not identical, to racism. It’s why so much of the time, Islamophobia is conceptualized as a type of ‘cultural racism’. I understand completely why some people are uncomfortable with this, because racism is, well, about race – but seeing as race is itself a social construct, I can understand why many take that to a more malleable interpretation that would include ‘cultural racism’. And if one does so, then Islamophobia fits.

But here, we’re conceptualizing Muslim identity as a function of how anti-Muslim bigots in the West look at Muslims. We’re not conceptualizing Muslim identity due to how Muslims generally think about themselves, at least historically speaking. When sympathetic observers of Muslim communities do uphold racialized notions of Muslim identity, they do so because they want to take advantage of the historical institutions of anti-racism struggles, which are the best ones – legally and politically – to combat anti-Muslim bigotry. Indeed, they’re basically the only effective ones that exist in the West, given the history of anti-discrimination legislation and policies. Of course, we know of discrimination based solely on religion, but generally speaking, our discrimination policies and legal architecture aims at ethnic or racial discrimination – not religious discrimination. So, if we’re trying to tackle religious discrimination, it’s not hard to see why many would uphold that notion of ‘cultural racism’ in order to do so.

I understand that, I appreciate that, and as long as we’re clear about the political and strategic decision-making in that regard, I am willing to accept that logic.

But you do think there is a difference between racial and religious discrimination?

On a theoretical level, I would still insist we recognize that there is a difference between religiously-based discrimination and ethnically-based discrimination. Generally speaking, Muslims of the West often face both simultaneously – but they are different, and should be noted as such in ideational terms, even if we do recognize – as I do – that practically speaking, they often happen at the same time, and our structural legal and political tools don’t distinguish between them enough in order to make a convincing argument for engaging separately.

You have written extensively on Islam, what is the most memorable reaction you have had to your work?

This is perhaps a little out of the box, but some years ago, I remember reading a piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, which cited arguments that the terrorist group “ISIS” was ‘very Islamic’. I took issue with that, for a variety of reasons, not least because it completely ignored that Islam as a historical tradition had its own system of delineating authoritative interpretations within the Muslim community – and while it was very pluralistic, it certainly didn’t uphold ISIS as a possible model. So, I decided to elaborate upon another group that could also legitimately – on the same standard – claim to be ‘Islamic’, which was Star Wars. I wrote a whole piece on, claiming that if ISIS had a right to be called ‘Islamic’, then so did Star Wars, because there was so much Islamic symbolism and argument included therein.

It was partly a satire piece, but it made the point, and did well enough in readership that CNN had it translated into Spanish for a wider audience. But in response to the piece, there was a hugely angry wave of messages I got – a few from ISIS supporters, but a number from anti-Muslim Star Wars fans, who were dismayed that Islam could be compared to their iconic film series. (As a Star Wars fan myself, I was a bit disappointed that such anti-Muslim bigotry was even more wide than I thought, but c’est la vie.) The piece itself was probably the most read piece I have ever written online, ironically.

What are your thoughts on the inclusion and representation of Islamic art and culture in the mainstream creative industries and media?

There’s been a real dearth of relied-upon expertise within those creative industries and the media. It seems to be getting better, but all too often, I’ll be watching something created by media or entertainment industries, and note that basic details around Muslims and their lived experiences are just badly represented. Sometimes, it’s clear there’s an actual deliberate effort to exoticise, or problematize, or just demonise, those communities. Others, it’s more that the producers are just not getting the advice they need in order to adjust how they tell their stories, or journalists not providing the proper context to help their readers understand the situation.

It’s become much better over the years, but there’s still quite a way to go, in my opinion. There will be those who are invested in making this better, so that young Muslims ‘see’ themselves represented in those industries and arenas. There are others who are more concerned about just minimizing damage, because such misrepresentation can result in yet more bigotry, which leads to social cohesion ruptures. I am more in the latter camp, but they don’t need to compete.

On a related point – if mainstream media and creative industries do want to be honest about their own national cultures (if we’re talking about the west) or internationally, then Muslim artistic forms and Muslim cultures are a part of art and culture, and always have been. But, of course, such historical realities don’t necessarily mean portrayal in these industries – market forces aren’t always so simple.

“A Revolution Undone” - one of Dr Hellyer’s books. Reviewed in the Financial Times here

Do you think there is a need for Muslim communities to reclaim narratives? If so, how can the arts facilitate this?

Muslim communities, whether as minorities in nation-states, or as a minority on the world stage, benefit tremendously by having what sociologists describe as ‘cultural capital’ and ‘social capital’. That kind of capital means they are valued far beyond their actual numbers, because the wider mainstream appreciates their contributions and influences over history. That’s a deeply important consideration for the enrichment of our societies more generally, but also for the survival, frankly, of Muslim communities in minority situations in particular. I’m generally a rather sober observer of political developments, and have critiqued alarmists in the past, but it is patently obvious to me that the conditions that led to the mass murder of Muslim Bosniaks in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995 are not so far from us today. The first step to being permissive about genocide is to ‘otherise’ culturally – if Muslim communities have social and cultural capital, and are able to provide their own narratives, the processing of ‘otherising’ is interrupted.

There’s one extra point in terms of narratives – and that’s the national narrative. Muslim communities do not only have a role in shaping their own role in the national narrative, where they are minorities – they have a role of shaping the national narrative itself. Or to put it another way – rather than focus on having a seat at the table, alone, they ought to be trying to set the menu itself. They have as much right to do so as anyone else. And participation in the arts is one way to engage in that process.

You have significant experience advising governments, how is this different from academic work?

I never set out to become an adviser to governments. I was first approached in the aftermath of the 7th of July bombings in the UK, by the then British government. I was dubious, and did not wish to be involved – it was only after a great deal of consultation with different people I trusted that I decided to do otherwise. Typically, academics are – quite rightly – cynical about state power, and even though my own PhD supervisor had engaged with government a great deal, I wasn’t instinctively enthusiastic about doing the same, necessarily.

I’ve kept a good deal of that skepticism during my career. Governments are about public service, but they are also about political agendas, by definition – politicians are voted in to uphold certain political programs, which you have to reckon with if you engage with government, even if you don’t agree with those programs. And often, even when you do interact with incredibly amazing human beings on the public sector side, they themselves have to then deal with many others within their systems – and it’s no surprise that not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.

All that being said, nonetheless: governments enact and push forward policies that have a massive impact, in the short, medium and long term, on our societies. So, we can choose to stay apart from them – and I think that’s an entirely legitimate stand point for many people – but we then have to accept that we are limited in how we might shape the consequences of those policies.

For myself, it became a very specific choice: does my engagement, in terms of giving advice, mean the potential for moral policies to be increased, and for immoral ones to be diminished? Or does my lack of engagement make that more likely? If my engagement does, then the door is open. If my lack of engagement does, I’m keeping far away.

Some of this is quite different from academic work – but I have to be honest and say it is not as different as many people think. When we engage in academia, we also make decisions about what to research and where to publish. If we’re ethically driven, we consider that carefully on the basis of the likelihood of public benefit. In that regard, there is a difference in scale – because the impact of academic works is likely to be less immediately impactful on policy than direct advisory work with government – but it’s still relevant to think about the potential consequences of publishing on this subject or that subject.

If you’re going to be involved in the public arena, then you have to recognise it as a privilege and a trust – and the loftiest way to uphold that is to be a disruptor in support of the oppressed, and a critic of abuses of power, without partisanship.

How do you balance such engagement with governments with academic independence?

I never, I hope, have ever published something I didn’t believe in. I do think a lot of academics are pressured to write in ways that will ingratiate them to their audiences – but I want to also note that such an independence issue isn’t only about governmental pressure. Academic life owes a great deal to ‘cliques’ as it were – for publishing, for employment prospects, and so on. It’s a very small few who have permanent contracts, or are tenured, and don’t wish to ever leave their institutions thereafter --- the overwhelming majority of academics are frankly in very vulnerable positions, in my opinion. Disproportionately, that impacts people of colour, those who are not independently wealthy, and women. I would want to focus more on ameliorating that kind of situation, which I don’t see too many really concerned about.

I’m concerned about the state of academia today. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have come into debt as a result of doing my PhD in the first place. But it is abundantly clear to me that the academic job market is terribly saturated with incredibly excellent people; that universities are relying more and more on using poorly paid adjuncts, rather than pay for full time contracted staff; that academics are being forced to choose financially stable careers outside of academia, because academia simply fails to keep up with rising costs of living; all of that means that academia is closing more and more doors to those who are not independently wealthy, and generally white men. It’s not a good trajectory.

You are a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, what does this recognition mean to you?

The institution is almost 270 years old, and has included amongst its fellows the likes of Judi Dench, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, and Charles Dickens - so, of course, it is nice to be a fellow. It does raise the question, though – if they’d admit me, perhaps they need to be more selective! I’m not remotely as accomplished as any of those fellows, after all. Nevertheless, I hope the association of the institution with the sort of research that I do brings more attention to the width and breadth that makes up the arts in our world today.

Which artists, writers and activists have inspired you?

I’ll try to restrict myself to more contemporary ones, which perhaps tells a bit of a story in and of itself, because the contemporary does link us to the past. Oft-times, I think we see answers to questions like these that limit themselves to pre-modern or ancient figures, and the fact is we mediate our understanding of those figures via more immediate ones.

When I first began my academic studies in Warwick, it was in western political philosophy, and I was quite taken by Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka, who were associated with the multiculturalist school within liberal political theory. Later on, I became exposed to Alasdair Macintyre’s work, an Augustinian Thomist, who was originally a Marxist – and thus incredibly attuned to the issues of capital and wealth. But he drifted from Marxism due to his distaste for how so many in the Marxist community were unable to see, or unwilling to critique, the tyranny or oppression being perpetrated by many who espoused Marxist ideas. It’s also not common for a western political theorist to take the view that there is something deeply destructive about contemporary modernity, which Macintyre does – and I appreciate that kind of honesty.

Bassem Sabry, a young Egyptian political commentator and, dare I say, activist was a dear friend. He passed away due to an accident – I wrote a short obituary for him in the altogether inspiring media outlet, Mada Masr. Bassem had this sense of deep belief in the potential of things in the wider Arab world, and it was a sentiment I shared, even if I was pragmatic about the probability of that potential being realized in the short term.

In Islamic studies, the likes of S.M. Naquib al-Attas of Malaysia, Seraj Hendricks of South Africa, and Rene Guenon of France, were directly and indirectly substantial influences. There is a lot more to say about this, but in a different field and probably requires its own discussion altogether.

(A book on Sufism written by Dr Hellyer with the aforementioned Shaykh Seraj, published by Fons Vitae)

What projects are you currently working on?

I just had a book published on the Egyptian revolution of 1919, with Bloomsbury Press, and have another book coming out in the next 6 months or so, also by Bloomsbury, on different types of extremism, which I am co-editing and co-writing with my colleague in a European Union Horizon 2020 research project, Michele Grossman, at Deakin University in Australia. It’s a wonderful exercise to get such a broad variety of chapters on different kinds of extremism from around the world, and I hope it will be the launchpad from which we can have broader and better discussions around extremism.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.

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