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ASU religious studies graduate dives background of Gulf War, Saudi Arabia

A portrait of a man with short dark hair wearing a blue button-down shirt posing in front of trees.

Skyler Bean

April 13, 2023

Editor's note: The story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Skyler Bean was born on an U.S. Air Force base in Saudi Arabia not too long before the Gulf War began. He was evacuated from the kingdom along with his mother and sister, while his father stayed to carry out Operation Desert Shield, and eventually, Operation Desert Storm.

“My research interests are a result of my desire to understand the confluence of multivalent, transnational causes which precipitated my parents’ presence, and by extension, my presence, in the kingdom,” Bean said.

Bean is graduating this spring with a master’s degree in religious studies and a concentration in Islamic studies. His research and thesis have been driven by his curiosity about U.S. troops’ presence in the Arabian Peninsula and the ways in which their presence was involved in the sociopolitical inflection experienced by the kingdom after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

He focused on the relationship between the religious establishment and the political authority in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during and after the 1991 Gulf War.

“I translated and analyzed a document produced by the elite religious establishment in 1991, as well as another document produced by the ruling royal family in Saudi Arabia in 1992 that can be thought of as the ‘constitution’ of the kingdom,” Bean said. “The second document, I argue, demonstrates how the royal family expanded their political authority and rendered themselves as the ultimate arbiters of legality. By expanding their political authority, they reformulated the historical narrative of the kingdom to redefine the orthodoxy governing their relationship with the religious establishment.”

Prior to enrolling in his master’s program, Bean attended ASU as an undergraduate and earned concurrent bachelor’s degrees in history and English along with certificates in classical studies and professional writing. 

Bean worked as the program coordinator of the Center for Maghrib Studies while he earned his master’s, earned a travel grant from ASU and was the recipient of the CDR Eldon L. Guhl, USN and Bertha V. Guhl Designated Scholarship from the Military Officers Association of America.

We caught up with him to ask him about his time at ASU, his plans for the future and his advice to current students. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My “aha” moment occurred in a historical methods class that I took as an undergraduate at ASU. Professor Yasmin Saikia led our class through foundational texts in postcolonial thought, which impacted me tremendously. Edward Said opened my eyes to the epistemic violence that girded and sustained the genocidal colonial project incepted in 15th century Western Europe. Frantz Fanon helped me understand the ways in which that project shaped and continues to affect the contemporary world order. 

When I enrolled in the class, I was interested in studying the instrumentalization of literature by political elites in the Greco-Roman world. After Professor Saikia’s class, I moved away from my interests in Greco-Roman cultural forms and became interested in the ways culture is wielded to serve the agenda of elite socio-political actors. 

I connected my intellectual interests to questions about my biography and was compelled to pursue a graduate degree. My goals for graduate study were to learn more about the ways historical narratives are instrumentalized to further the interests of political elites and to train in Islamic studies.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: All three members of my thesis committee have been vital in shaping my thinking as a graduate student and consequently my identity as a scholar. Under Professor Shahla Talebi’s supervision, I explored recent work in the anthropology of religion, which became the foundation for my understanding of the anthropology of Islam. Professor Han Hsien Liew trained me in Islamic legal history and gave shape to my understanding of Islamic political thought by introducing me to pre-modern Arabic sources. Professor Shamara Wyllie Alhassan opened me up to critical methodologies and decolonial praxis and has been a valuable guide for thinking through the ways historical narratives are co-opted by political powers to serve a multi-faceted agenda. All three members of my thesis committee, as well as Professor Gaymon Bennett, helped me better understand and identify the effects of European colonialism throughout history and into the present day.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: One, slow down, take your time, take care of yourself, and take advantage of all the resources available at ASU. ASU offers mental-health services, career coaching, employment opportunities, even specialty software access, as well as a host of other services. 

Two, don’t be afraid to reach out for help early and often. Being a squeaky but respectful wheel will be not only helpful, but necessary — especially in graduate school. 

Three, if you’re an undergrad, do a study abroad. I did a semester in London as an undergraduate, and it was one of the best parts of my college experience. If you’re a graduate student, get funding to go to conferences. ASU has many pots of funding available to help students travel and build their professional network beyond ASU.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is outside of Charlie’s Café in Hayden Library. However, I’ve had many meals while enjoying the weather from the shade of the Memorial Union.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am considering PhD programs in history and anthropology as well as Fulbright Awards. Alternatively, I am interested in working for a non-governmental organization in the international relations space.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Overturn “Citizens United.” Then, I hope, U.S. politicians will undertake devising necessary solutions to other problems in the U.S. and around the world, problems that will cost much more than $40 million to solve. Globally, those problems include climate change, food scarcity and predatory lending to governments in the Global South. In the U.S., they include systemic income and wealth inequality, reparations to descendants of enslaved African-Americans and comprehensive reform of the health care, education, immigration and law enforcement systems.

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