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Fatiha Azzarhouni: ‘Delving deeply into something suits me’

She began as an IT professional but after 7 years in the business world, she devoted herself to an entirely different field: Islamic Theology. As co-founder of the Leiden Islam Academy, Fatiha Azzarhouni now works at Leiden University to increase understanding of Islam in Dutch society.

A new life

‘I was born in the north of Morocco, near Nador. I attended primary school in Morocco for two years, so I can actually remember that time. I came to the Netherlands at the age of eight. The first two years in the Netherlands were quite difficult, leaving a spacious house and my friends behind. I remember how that feels.

In the Netherlands, I grew up in The Hague, started studying Computer Science at the Hogere Technische School (HTS) and then worked as a project manager and consultant at various IT companies over a seven-year period. I enjoyed the work, but I sometimes missed the human touch in the commercial world.’

The role of religion

‘I was still working in IT when the debate about Muslims and Islam in Dutch society started flaring up. Suddenly everyone was talking about Muslims, and often negatively. I grew up with the teachings of Islam but, until that moment, I was not particularly concerned with my Muslim identity. Yet I still felt that this debate involved me. I felt obliged to do more research and ask myself the question: What does Islam mean to me?’

A leap of faith

‘That is when I changed course. I went to study the Bachelor of Islamic Theology and Master of Religious Studies at Leiden University. If I decide to do something, I really go for it, so part-time was never an option. I moved, quit my steady job and immersed myself in full-time study. I love new, exciting experiences, so delving deeply into something suits me well.’

‘After completing my studies in 2013, I bumped into my former lecturer Maurits Berger. He was busy developing a new form of education. We seemed to click and we then embarked on establishing the Leiden Islam Academy together. With this academy, we want to share the knowledge we have about Islam with society at large.’

Unique in The Netherlands

‘Among other projects, we’ve developed the online course Islam in the class that helps teachers with no Islamic background to better understand Muslim pupils in their class. We also work with, for instance, doctors or lawyers who want to know more about the culturally sensitive issues they face in their work.’

‘The form we currently use to disseminate knowledge as a university is entirely unique in the Netherlands. We are neutral: I was really drilled here at the university to remain as neutral as possible. It is precisely because debate on this topic is so divisive, that our role of sharing neutral knowledge with society is so critical.’

New experiences

‘Besides my work, I really like travelling. That also has to do with my need to do and see new things. Sometimes, you don’t even need to travel far for new experiences. I love hiking around where I live, for example, around Wassenaarseslag, in The Hague or Leidschendam. I also like travelling to Morocco, where we stay close to the sea. You have clean air there, no exhaust fumes and at night you hear the crickets chirping. I am able to completely relax there.’

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