Jacobus Fellow Cole Bunzel's dissertation explores history of Wahhābism in Saudi Arabia

Cole Bunzel, a doctoral student in Near Eastern studies, is one of four winners of this year's Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton University's top honor for graduate students.

Cole Bunzel is one of four winners of this year’s Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton University’s top honor for graduate students, along with Chantal Berman, Matthew Edwards and Georgios Moschidis.

The fellowships support the students’ final year of study at Princeton and are awarded to one Ph.D. student in each of the four divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering) whose work has exhibited the highest scholarly excellence. The Jacobus Fellows were honored at Alumni Day ceremonies Saturday, Feb. 24.

Bunzel, a doctoral student in Near Eastern studies, earned his A.B. in the field from Princeton in 2008. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and started his Ph.D. program at Princeton in 2012.

Bunzel’s dissertation, “The Escalation of Enmity: The Origins and Evolution of Militant Wahhābism,” is an intellectual and political history of Wahhābism in Saudi Arabia — the movement to which al-Qaida and the Islamic State group claim to belong — that reexamines its earliest beginnings, development and its interpretations in contemporary jihadism. He discusses his work in the video above.

“The twin focuses of my present work — Wahhābism and jihadism — indicate the range of my research interests, which oscillate between past and present, taking me from obscure 18th-century manuscripts to the Twitter accounts and Telegram channels of the jihadis,” Bunzel said. “My dissertation brings these interests together in a broad-ranging reexamination of the history and doctrine of militant Wahhābism, which the jihadis have seized upon in recent years as the main theological justification for their movement.”

Bunzel is a recipient of a Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies summer research grant and a scholarship from the Ladislas Pathy Scholarship Fund. He also was awarded the World Politics and Statecraft Fellowship from the Smith Richardson Foundation and visiting scholarships at King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

This past fall, Bunzel participated in the Collaborative Teaching Initiative, co-teaching “Jihadism in the Modern Middle East” with his adviser, Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies and director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Bunzel said it is exactly the type of course he hopes to teach one day as a professor.

Haykel, who also is director of the Program in Near Eastern Studies, said Bunzel is “the most gifted scholar I have taught in my academic career.” Commenting on Bunzel’s research in Saudi Arabia, Haykel said, “He amassed a trove of primary source material, negotiated access to private libraries in provincial towns that have never been visited by a foreign researcher, and developed a keen understanding of Saudi society and politics.

“His drive, language and analytical skills are truly extraordinary. There are very few scholars today who can cover such a range of sources and timespan, as well as explain the politics of religious puritanism with verve and clarity as Cole does.”