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The Excitement and Challenges of Researching in a Foreign Country

By callagilson

Only 15 days remain until I begin my full time independent study period! The opportunity to do a research project or internship is one of the hallmarks of the programs offered by the School for International Training, and one of the main reasons that I chose to come to Morocco. However, there is still so much to prepare so that I can use the quickly-approaching month of intentional research to its fullest potential. Organizing my research has been more frustrating than expected. The topic of religious moderation in Morocco is vast and very government-centric. The more I discover, the more complex the topic seems to grow!

I have narrowed down my focus to address those individuals whose trans-national identities are molded by their enrollment in the religious moderation training of the Moroccan government. Each year, the Moroccan government invites classes of young people from Africa and Europe to study at its International Imam Training School here in Rabat. Each country participating in the program has its own guidelines for selecting students to receive the training, but the Moroccan government pays for the schooling in full. The program started in September 2013, after Morocco reached an agreement with the Malian government to train 500 imams in the “moderate” Islam of the Moroccan King—the Commander of the Faithful, as he is named in the Moroccan Constitution. Since its inception, the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs has received requests for the program’s trainings from numerous governments in sub-Saharan Africa, including Guinea and Niger, and European countries including France and Canada.

The ultimate goal of the programming is to engage in religious diplomacy and prevent the spread of radicalism by promoting a moderate interpretation of Islam. Students are trained in Maliki Islam, a school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence which has become widely promoted by the state in Morocco. Students who graduate from the program return to their home country to train other religious leaders. As radicalism is often based on ignorance, teaching a “pragmatic” form of interpretation of the Quran and Prophetic interpretation is understood to be both progressive and preventative, as the religious leaders go forth to foster values of “openness and tolerance".

The more I learn, the more excited I get to start full-time research on this topic. I have, however, underestimated the challenges of doing research in a foreign country. I so greatly look forward to talking with current and graduated students of the religious moderation training program. Yet when I discover contacts, a new problem arises of working around the language barrier. I have only been studying Arabic for two months, so in-depth conversations about theology and geo-political implications of religious diplomacy are above my skill level! Learning how to work with and translate surveys and anterior methods of interviewing is essential. The Moroccan government takes great pride in this program, and I want to advance knowledge about it through my research. However, getting through any governmental bureaucracy to further my research also poses challenges.  I had originally believed that some NGOs might support the efforts of the Ministry, but this is not the case. To be hands-on within the training school, for instance, I will need to find government contacts. My plans for an internship are currently being reviewed, but it is highly unlikely that I will be able to work directly with any government department as I had hoped.

In the next 15 days I will be submitting formal proposals, continuing my literature review and preparing to get my research methods approved SIT’s own Institutional Review Board to ensure that everything is ethical. I am so excited to continue learning about this topic and coming up with creative ways to gather data.

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