Teachers of Islam: Education, Religion, and Politics in Public Schools in Belgium
Hafsa Oubou

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Northwestern University

Primary Discipline

After the 2016 attacks in Brussels, Belgium, media discourse immediately focused on youth and public education, blaming instructors of Islam and imams (prayer leaders) for their alleged failure to teach the democratic values of le vivre ensemble, a popular French expression that means co-existence. The teaching of Islam in public schools in francophone Belgium suddenly became a contentious enterprise rather than evidence of co-existence, leading to a growing suspicion towards teachers of Islam and a heated debate among political parties to remove classes of religion from public schools. Many teachers of Islam in public schools have recently engaged with the idea of le vivre ensemble as an Islamic value while navigating increasingly visible challenges: teaching Islam in a political climate that sees Islam as a threat to national security and responding to controversial education reforms that target courses of Islam. In this dissertation, I examine how the intersection of education, religion, and race in public schools shapes religious and ethnic minorities. Using ethnographic methods from fieldwork in Brussels, I explore how teachers of Islam understand and engage with the values of co-existence in an historical moment characterized by Islamophobia and extreme-right politics in Belgium. More broadly, this research seeks to understand what the teaching of co-existence as an Islamic value tells us about the question of Islam in Europe today.
About Hafsa Oubou
Hafsa Oubou is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Northwestern University with an MA in Middle Eastern and North African Studies from the University of Arizona. While earning her MA, she became interested in the question of Islam in Europe and the Moroccan diaspora in Belgium. In her research, Hafsa engages more broadly with questions of education, religion, politics, secularism, diaspora, migration, gender, and race. Her dissertation investigates how teachers of Islam in public schools respond to the public discourse around the place of religion, particularly Islam, in public education. In addition to the NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship, Hafsa received funding for her research project from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, as well as from Northwestern University, namely the Earle Dissertation Award from the Department of Anthropology, the Graduate Dissertation Award from the Buffett Institute, and the Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad Award from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs. Hafsa obtained her BA degree in English Linguistics from Ibn Zohr University in Agadir and another MA degree in Communication Studies from Cadi Ayad University in Marrakech, Morocco. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Center at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium (2018-2020).

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