During my time as a Fulbright grantee and European Studies graduate student at KU Leuven in Belgium, I have conducted interviews with Muslim communities from various backgrounds to identify the factors they believe lead to polarization within subsets of their communities while analyzing their perceptions of the Belgian ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ strategies. I have learned some key lessons in conducting such sensitive research in Belgium and I will highlight them in this post.
Make sure that you have a good ‘gatekeeper’ … especially when working with marginalized communities!
When I first set out looking for individuals to interview, it was an incredibly arduous process. I sat at my computer for hours persistently googling individuals that I wanted to interview, but only managed to procure a handful of names. Upon contacting them, I was met with silence. Initially, I was taken aback as I had remembered the process of getting interviews for my undergraduate thesis in the U.S. being rather easy. I spoke to a Professor at KU Leuven and she informed me that the communities I was attempting to interview were overwhelmed with the number of researchers asking to speak with them and, as such, I would likely have little success.
I decided to change tactics and connected once more with my affiliation in Belgium, a Director of a prominent NGO in Brussels who had contacts with several Muslim community leaders in Western Europe. I explained the situation over coffee and within an hour he reached out to over forty of his contacts. I had all my interviews schedules for the month within a week! I realized at that moment just how important it was to have a well-connected affiliation or ‘gatekeeper’ to reach out to individuals on your behalf as this not only assures your interviewees that you are someone they can trust, but also allows you access to an array of fascinating individuals you might not have found through a simple google search.
Keep it light at first!
Don’t start out with the hard-hitting or difficult questions immediately. Unless you know your subject prior to interviewing them, you will likely scare them off if you ask a question that is too personal or challenging at the beginning of the interview. My topic was particularly sensitive so while my interviews were semi-structured, I kept a general sequencing of questions that started out inquiring about general knowledge and built up to more sensitive questions incrementally.
Once I felt I developed a trust with the subject and could see a notable relaxation in their body language, I would ask more difficult questions and perhaps ask them to elaborate more in-depth on personal anecdotes and how that specifically made them feel. That said, you will develop a sort of sixth sense for conducting these interviews once you’ve done a few, so above all else trust your gut!
Be conscious of language barriers!
I only speak Arabic and English, so when I first proposed this project to the professor I am working with in Leuven, he chuckled and said ‘good luck’. Thankfully, I may that clear to my other affiliation and he made sure to solely connect me with individuals who spoke fluent English. That said, there were still language barriers that made the process challenging at times. Namely in the fact that there were several individuals that felt they could elaborate more effectively on a point in their native tongue. Retrospectively, I wish I would have asked these individuals to make the point in French or Dutch and then found a fluent speaker to translate later. It’s more work, but it allows the interviewee to fully express themselves.
Another issue I had was with misunderstanding. While this was normally minimal and could easily be fixed through giving a clear definition to a term the interviewee is confused about, there were still a handful of times when it bordered on miscommunication. For example, when conducting an interview with a Wallonian man, I asked him to elaborate on the particular religious sect a community he worked with belonged to and he immediately froze up in response. He told me that the word sect in French was incredibly contentious and reserved for when talking about religious extremism. I apologized profusely and explained that I only meant to ask if they were Sunni, Shia, or a different subdivision. After that interview, I asked a Wallonian friend to coffee and had her read over all of my questions to ensure that there were no other mishaps. I highly recommend anyone do this prior to conducting interviews on a sensitive subject in Belgium as what might be perfectly normal to ask someone who is Flemish could be seen as offensive to someone that is Wallonian, or vice versa.
Lastly, I purposely chose not to do any of the interviews in Arabic, because I knew it would be build up too much of a sense of familiarity between myself and the interviewees. While this would seem counter to the points I am making of building trust, it is not. You want to build trust but not necessarily familiarity as this can hinder the subject viewing you as an objective and impartial interviewer. If the interviewee does not see you as objective, it could cause them to alter their answers to fit your views more accordingly. Thus, I highly recommend that you think carefully on what language you wish to conduct your interviews in, as this could very well change the tone of the interviews or even the answers you receive.
Take advantage of public transport!
Belgium is an amazing country to conduct interviews in! This is largely due to its size and the low cost of transport. It takes under three hours to get from any one point in the country to another and each locality has its own entirely distinct culture. I conducted interviews in Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges, Liege, and Ghent, yet never spent more than 13 euros roundtrip for all of these excursions.
I made the decision to travel to all of these locations as I wanted to ensure that I was in no way presenting the Muslims communities in Belgium as sharing a monolithic experience. I understood that a Muslim individual of Turkish background in Ghent had an entirely different cultural experience and set of political grievances to a Muslim individual of Moroccan background in Liege and I wanted that to be accurately portrayed.
I only wish that I had branched out even more and gone to various other localities to further diversify my data. I recommend that anyone conducting interviews on ethnic or cultural groups in Belgium, take advantage of how distinctly different lived experiences are in this country from locality to locality and make sure to highlight that in your research.
Capitalize on this opportunity!
If you are based near Brussels, remember that you have limitless opportunities to learn more about your research topic from an array of world-renowned experts, academics, and politicians. Seize every opportunity you can to attend think tank and EU institution events on your topic to not only gather information about the most recent developments in your field of study, but also to network! Be sure to read up on the background of the panelists so that you come ready to ask informed questions that lend well to their expertise. These events allowed me to see my research question from various different perspectives that I could not have through simply reading the literature. I also networked with some people in the audience who I later got coffee with and who gave me advice on the various different career paths in my field I ought to consider.
Overall, Fulbright allowed me to conduct timely research in one of the most culturally diverse countries in Western Europe and for that, I am eternally grateful. I know this experience will serve me well in my future career endeavors in the field of international security. I urge you to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way while completing your Fulbright grant in Belgium!
As the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Belgium, Nadine Iskandar has spent the 2018-2019 academic year conducting research and academic work at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Her research looks at Muslim diasporas living in Belgium; specifically focusing on factors that lead to alienation and even radicalization, and their perceptions of the government’s countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts. Nadine is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, class of 2017.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.