Mostafa El Sharkawy is a PhD student in political science. His research interests are in religious politics and violent extremism, predominantly in the Middle East and North Africa.

Name: Mostafa El Sharkawy

Degree, Minor, Graduation Year: Political Science, Ph.D., 2nd year student

Hometown(s): Cairo

Tell us about you and your background:

I am a PhD student in political science at the University of Michigan, where my research interests are in religious politics and violent extremism, predominantly in the Middle East and North Africa. I am currently particularly interested in the role of formal and informal religious institutions in affecting public opinion on issues of violence and extremism. I also have a methodological interest in computational text analysis and spatial statistics. Prior to arriving in Michigan, I received my bachelor’s degree in international relations and public policy from the University of Toronto.

A monument for Chokri Belaid in Sfax, Tunisia. Belaid was assassinated in 2013 amid a wave of high-profile terrorist attacks in Tunisia. The plaque on the left refers to Belaid as a martyr and includes a quote that loosely translates to “You are required to stand for Tunisia.” The plaque on the right says Another Tunisia is possible. The monument appears to be sponsored by Tunisia’s general labor union, the UGTT.

Tell us about your summer, where and when did your fellowship take place?

This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Tunisia for an exploratory fieldwork trip towards my dissertation. I visited Tunisia during the month of May to meet and interview academics, activists, journalists, international development agency officials, and politicians with the aim of grounding my research project and making important advancements towards the building of my theoretical framework and planning for empirical testing. In this project, I hope to build and test a theory about if, how, and when religious institutions, like mosques, discuss political violence with the aim of shaping the public opinion of its adherents.

With a focus on the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia emerged as an important and relevant case. While the country stood out over a decade ago for its successful transition to democracy following the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, Tunisia faced many socio-political challenges immediately after including several high-profile terrorist attacks between 2013 and 2015. Besides having a massive impact on Tunisia’s tourism industry, the terrorist attacks and the environment in which they proliferated caused massive political instability. One of the main things I was interested in during my fieldwork in Tunisia was asking about this period and especially asking people how their local religious leaders behaved during it. I also wanted to learn, more broadly, about the nature of religion, religiosity, and religious institutions in Tunisia throughout its modern history.

A picture of me in front of Kairouan’s Great Mosque, sometimes referred to as the Mosque of Uqba Ibn Nafa’a named after the founder of the city of Kairouan in 670 AD, it is considered the oldest mosque in North Africa.

During my fellowship, I spent considerable time in Tunisian mosques with the aim of gaining a better understanding of their day-to-day affairs, their networks and governance, and the relationship between leadership and mosque-goers. Among the mosques I visited was Al-Zaytuna Mosque in central Tunis - it is one of the oldest mosques in the country and synonymous with Tunisia’s Islamic education. I spoke with several of those who frequented the mosque and attended a few of the sermons that took place at the mosque, including, of course, the Friday prayer sermon. Visiting popular mosques such as Al-Zaytuna was valuable insofar as it uncovered norms and common knowledge that a high-profile mosque is expected to share and disseminate. It was my visits to regular mosques in the suburbs of Tunis and in Sfax and Kairouan that taught me more about local mosque governance and the extent to which Tunisians respected and listened to local religious authority. Among the many interesting things I learned from those visits where I spoke with Imams, mosque staff and mosque goers was that many mosques have public libraries attached to them. These are separate from mosque libraries which house religious texts predominantly, but contribute to the understanding of mosques as local religious institutions with a wide net of social and community networks that extends through channels like libraries, food banks, school systems, etc.

This is one of the pictures I took at the National Documentation Centers in Tunis. This one includes an address that the then President Habib Bourghiba gave in the city of Kairouan in the post-independence era where he, among other things, discussed the role of Islam in Tunisian society. Presidential addresses like these appeared weekly in the national newspaper almost until the removal of Bourguiba in 1987.

I also spent some time in the archives in Tunis which was a very interesting experience and integral to understanding the modern history of religion in the public sphere in Tunisia. The capital is home to many archives, including the National Documentation Center which keeps a detailed archive of national newspapers since independence. I explored this section of the archive extensively to account for how discussions about religion were formed by national politicians, from Tunisia’s first and longest-serving president Habib Bourghiba to Islamist leaders in the 2011-2013 period.

How did the GISC 2024 Summer Fellowship help you?

The GISC 2024 Summer Fellowship was instrumental in allowing me to travel to Tunisia and be able to explore several important cities and regions during my time there. In addition to the capital Tunis, I was able to visit the historically important Islamic city of Kairouan and the site of interesting contemporary Islamist mobilization, the coastal city of Sfax. The ability to travel across the country and capture the immense variation in the development of religious institutions and religiosity is integral to my research and would not be possible without the GISC Summer Fellowship. Additionally, the fellowship assisted me in being able to spend time in the national archives and take with me copies of archival records to be used in the dissertation project.

This is one of the many Quran Society centers that I saw during my time in Tunisia. The one pictured is in Kairouan, near the Great Mosque of Kairouan. I came across similar centers in Sfax and in Tunis along with several banners advertising the public meetings of the national society.

What is your favorite thing that you learned this summer?

Perhaps favorite is not the right word for this, but one of the more interesting things I learned this summer was the reach of the national Quran society. As I began to understand the extent to which the Islamist Ennahda political party had been stifled and restricted by the current regime. With that in mind, I began looking out for and learning more about the national Quran society, which emerged as a relevant channel for mobilization given that much of the influence of religious institutions is inextricably linked to the rise or fall of the national Islamist movement in the country. This society, primarily concerned with hosting and managing memorization and recitation competitions for the Holy Quran, is likely one of the only national avenues through which religious ideas, some of them political in nature, could be discussed in a somewhat open forum in Tunisia today. It was quite difficult to speak with members of the society during my summer fellowship, but I look forward to exploring this institution more in future trips to Tunisia.

What advice do you have for future Summer Fellows?

Take risks and enjoy your time out in the field as much as you are able to. I think some of the best progress I made toward my research during my fellowship was when I just tried things out. While this sounds like advice most applicable to fellows traveling for a research project, I think for every summer fellow it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it is ultimately a fantastic opportunity to experience a new place, learn about it, and hopefully contribute to it.


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) are eligible to apply for the GISC’s Fellowship funding.

The GISC Fellowship funding may be used for the following:

  • Language training - to offset the 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

For more information, visit our undergraduate funding or graduate funding pages.