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Teachers and lecturers broaden their perspective of Islam

Islam can be a difficult or sensitive subject to discuss with pupils, regardless whether they are Muslim. Fourteen secondary-school teachers and university lecturers went on a fact-finding trip to Morocco accompanied by experts from NIMAR (the Netherlands Institute in Morocco). What did they learn from the trip?

We spoke to four of them before they left about their expectations of the trip, and spoke to them again on their return. Did the trip live up to their expectations? What did they learn, and what surprised them?

Read the interviews before the trip


Djoeke Barendregt, religious education teacher in a secondary school

‘It was an amazing trip. At present, my lessons aren’t about Islam, but that hasn’t stopped me telling people all about my experiences during the trip: not just my pupils, but also my family, my colleagues of course and even my hairdresser! It was such a positive experience that I want to share it. I learnt that Morocco is an extremely diverse country: for instance, some people like to wear traditional clothing, but others wear very modern clothes. The king is actively driving a programme of reform that will give women more rights. But it may still take some time before this comes into effect, which means that young women still sometimes find themselves torn between two worlds: they are allowed to study and work on their personal development, but at home their parents are still traditional. That can cause friction. What I also noticed was that the differences between Morocco and the Netherlands are no way near as big as I had thought. Religious freedom is included in the Moroccan constitution, for instance. The great majority of the population is Muslim, of course, but other faiths can be practised.’

Halil Ibrahim Karaaslan, citizenship teacher in a secondary school

‘I found the trip very intensive. It didn’t meet my expectations – but I mean that in a positive sense because it exceeded them. It got me thinking about myself, about identity and how it is formed and to what extent it is dynamic and context-bound. So for me it was also a kind of spiritual trip. Hugely fascinating for me personally, but also from the perspective of how I can introduce this into lessons and how we can discuss it in class. I don’t think that I necessarily learnt anything new from my Moroccan colleagues about the theme of the trip. What I mainly learnt – and it was nice to have this confirmed – was that we teachers face the same challenges. Just like us, the teachers there are dealing with young people who are challenging. It’s universal about being a teacher that you are committed to your class, try to do the best by your pupils and do all you can to help them.

‘What struck me most was people’s relationship with Islam. It was very different from what was instilled in me at home – I’ve got Turkish roots. For instance, your dealings with non-Muslims when it comes to reading or touching the Qur’an or entering a mosque. That provoked fascinating discussions on themes such as diversity within religion. It made it clear that something that bears the same name can be expressed in different ways in different countries or environments. I sensed moments of “novelty” in many colleagues, when they learnt something new about students whom they may already have been teaching for years, and their religion. I think that if a significant number of your pupils are Muslim, it is a good idea to learn about their faith. It helps you put things in perspective, not so much to decide whether something is good or bad, but rather to understand it.’

Tom Wils, lecturer on the geography teacher training programme (university of applied sciences)

‘I gained a much more comprehensive picture of Islam and Islamic politics in Morocco. The trip definitely provided some great inspiration for discussion with my students, which is what I had hoped for. It’s easier for me to place extremist thinking within the body of Islamic thought. I can also see the freedoms and lack of freedoms in Morocco: formally a lot is forbidden, but in practice there is a lot you can do, as long as you aren’t seen doing it. I see many Muslim pupils and students struggle with this background, and now understand better how much tact is needed to talk about it with them. This trip taught me that Dutch Moroccans are torn between two worlds. People in the Netherlands often look down on them, but their position in Morocco isn’t fantastic either. Many come from Rif and are seen as troublemakers. At the same time, the Moroccan government forces them to retain their Moroccan citizenship alongside their Dutch citizenship, and this means they don’t enjoy the freedoms that foreigners enjoy within Morocco. I understand that they are reluctant to talk about what motivates them: they are in a considerably unsafe context, in both the Netherlands and Morocco. Such a situation hampers the discussion and can therefore form a breeding ground for copy-and-paste identities and/or radical ideas.

‘If I had to give my fellow lecturers a tip on how to deal with the theme of Islam and citizenship, I would recommend stories from Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, to get pupils discussing life, Islam and worldly leaders. It is a good roundabout way of making pupils or students aware of the ways in which they are constantly manipulated. It is very good to make them aware of this, particularly when this is very diffuse.’

Maaike van Gemert, religious education and world view teacher in a secondary school

‘What an amazing and illuminating experience it was! The country is doing its best to portray an image of tolerant Islam. A country of great struggle and contrasts, with amazing food and people. It was difficult at times to work out people’s intention when saying something. Like the woman we spoke to at Rabita, the ‘royally appointed council of religious scholars charged with shaping the Moroccan religious identity’. When someone asked her how the council dealt with sexual diversity, she answered that other things took priority, such as the equality of men and women. Perhaps it wasn’t safe to answer this question? Was that really her opinion? So to some extent it was a question of filtering and interpreting. When we met people from the university or teaching world and a human-rights lawyer and activists, they didn’t answer all our questions, and that says a lot. I’m really pleased that we were able to see and experience from so many perspectives how Islam works in Morocco, and how people think the population should function within this framework. So I’d like to say a huge thanks to the organisers and the expert guidance of NIMAR.’

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