Zayd Elkahlah is pursuing a Master's in International and Regional Studies with a specialization in Islamic studies. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2020 with a BA in history and economics. Having lived in Amman, Jordan, during the Arab spring, Zayd gained firsthand experience of what Islam meant as a religion, its role in politics, and how ordinary Muslims view it. His current research interests include the relationship between Islamic fundamentalism or Salafism, Pan-Arabism, and Nationalism.
Degree, Minor, Graduation Year: Masters in International and Regional Studies with a specialization in Islamic Studies. Graduating in April 2022.
Hometown: Ann Arbor, Michigan
How you would describe yourself: I would describe myself as a reader and a researcher.
Affiliations: As an undergrad at the University of Michigan I preferred to focus on my studies. However, as a graduate student, I have grown attached to the Interdisciplinary Islamic Studies Seminar (IISS), and attend their events whenever I can.
Tell us about your summer, where and when did your fellowship take place? My fellowship took place in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. I used the fellowship to enroll in the intensive second-year Russian course offered by the University of Michigan Summer Language Institute. It started on June 30th and ended on August 17th. Most of my time was used to consolidate elementary Russian grammar that I learned from first-year Russian. Furthermore, I learned new terms and grammar structures and learned how to better understand and speak Russian.
Tell us about you and your background: Although I was born in Ann Arbor, I lived a good portion of my life in Amman Jordan. There I was exposed to a great portion of Arabic and Islamic studies. When returning to the US for high school and university I noticed that Muslims in the US were quite different from the Muslims in the Arab world. This opened my eyes to a whole new understanding of the relationship between religion and culture. This inspired me to learn more about the history of Islam to understand when and how this occurred. I would later declare a history major as an undergrad with a focus on Islam and later enroll in the Masters in International and Regional Studies with a Specialization in Islamic Studies. However, this time I chose to focus on theology and ideologies of certain Sunni Islamic groups, and their relationship to culture and politics.
How did the GISC 2021 Summer Fellowship help you? Although I dedicated most of my time as a grad student to the study of multiple Sunni Islamic groups, my main focus has been on the Salafist groups (Sunni fundamentalism) such as ISIS. During my research, I noticed that the group had managed to successfully recruit Russian-speaking Muslims from Russia and Central Asia. When I began to look into why they would want to be a part of such groups, I came across speeches and writing in Russian by Sunni Fundamentalist preachers. However, due to the Russian and Central Asian governments' ban on certain material, some material remained untranslated or translated with a political motive in mind, which could lead to false information. This fellowship allowed me to continue learning Russian, getting me one step further from being my own translator for these Russian sources.
What experiences during the summer inspired you? One thing I admire about the University of Michigan language course is they manage to teach both language and culture. During my time I was exposed to a great amount of Russian culture, and how modern Russians interact with one another in their common and informal speech, rather than the typical formal speech that we would hear from speeches. My instructors would constantly mention how certain Russians would say certain phrases and how they might seem weird to us English speakers, but completely normal for Russian speakers.
What did this fellowship allow you to do? This fellowship allowed me to continue to learn Russian in a short period of time. As this fellowship allowed me to take a full year of Russian in less than two months. I also took first-year Russian during the winter 2021 semester, thus this fellowship allowed me to continue learning Russian with minimal breaks in between, which I see as crucial for the study of any language. Studying this language also allowed me to do research on the various Russian sources I have. Thus, this fellowship directly helped me further my knowledge of Russian, and indirectly allowed me to further my research using Russian sources.
How do you see this fellowship impacting your future? I see this fellowship as a stepping stone for what I will accomplish in the future. As I see Russian crucial to my future research in Islamic Studies, which I hope to continue in a PhD program.
What drew you to the 2021 GISC Summer Fellowship and how was your experience? As a master’s student specializing in Islamic Studies, my program was anchored in the Global Islamic Studies Center. This meant I was already familiar with the center's advisors and directors. After I mentioned to my program advisor, Dr. Muzammil Hussain, that I was interested in language training over the summer. He told me that he was working on a fellowship opportunity to help fund summer projects for students such as myself and recommended that I apply as soon as the application opens. As a fellow, I was lucky enough to be familiar with the language program I was enrolling in. I can personally say that it was one of the most fun and beneficial times I have ever had learning a language or even a skill in general. Honestly, the whole experience was incredible and reassured me that I chose the right university and program to enroll in.
Favorite thing you learned this summer: My favorite thing I learned this summer was the various phrases Russians use, and how they can sometimes be very different and funny to English speakers.
What advice do you have for future summer fellows? I would tell them to not be afraid to apply, even if they aren’t necessarily affiliated with the GISC, and to always reach out to the center with any questions or concerns. As I have yet to see anything but good things from the center. Furthermore, I would tell them to use their time as a fellow wisely as their time as a fellow could help them in any future project they might have.
What are your dreams and goals for the future and does your summer fellowship relate? My dreams are to continue my education and research into a PhD program in Islamic Studies. The best thing I got from my fellowship was that I learned a new language that I will continue to learn in the future as well as use in any of my future research projects, whether as a student, academic or professional.
Wondering how this can be you? All students currently enrolled at the University of Michigan in an undergraduate or graduate/professional degree program (master's or doctoral level) and are affiliated with the GISC are eligible to apply for the 2022 Summer Fellowship Funding.
The GISC 2022 Summer Fellowship Funding may be used for the following:
● Language training - to offset costs of program fees for language learning.
● Research support - to offset costs for an original project supporting Senior, Master’s, or Doctoral thesis completion.
● Travel expenses (graduate students only) - associated with conducting original research or language training