Internship Spotlight: Hussain Awan

I am entering my final year as an undergraduate student in World Islamic and Middle East Studies at McGill. I wanted to do this internship because of my interest in Middle East studies, and in particular, the way American foreign policy impacts nations in the region. Hence, I began an internship with the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

The Weatherhead Center seeks to “facilitate the production of pathbreaking social science research on international, comparative, transnational, and global issues”, and I hoped to help with this goal specifically in studying and producing academic literature on Iranian domestic politics and the milieu from which they emerged towards the end of the 20th century. My supervisor at the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs was the director, Prof. Payam Mohseni. Prof. Mohseni both supervised my research into Shi’i political theory and 20th century Shi’i revivalist thinkers, while also teaching a four month-long seminar on the Iranian domestic political sphere that eventually resulted from these developments.

As an intern with the Project, I researched multiple lengthy academic papers on revivalism and political theory, with the intention of eventually having that work subsumed into an upcoming book summarizing the intersection between Shi’a Islam and politics. In order to do this, I carried out extensive research on extant literature on these topics, as well as examining primary source material like the writings and publications of revivalist thinkers, documentaries and filmwork, and theological source material. I also attended weekly meetings throughout the summer, in addition to having meetings and receiving feedback from Prof. Mohseni designed to improve my work and my academic writing skills.

I would say that the highlight of my internship was definitely the seminar on Iranian politics, as it helped me dive into reading about an area that I previously only had a superficial understanding of. We covered a lengthy period of history starting from the early 20th century right up to the recent presidential elections, while also getting to read previews of unpublished book chapters dealing with the political economy and interfactional disputes of the Iranian domestic political scene. Studying this very much enhanced my understanding of the politics of hybrid and competitive-authoritarian regimes, and bolstered the material that I had learned in my Political Science and International Development classes at McGill. Moreover, and relevant to my internship work, studying Iranian politics gave me a much better understanding of the historically-earlier topics I was writing on myself, and therefore helped me produce better scholarship.

At the end of the internship now, I can say with confidence that my writing skills have improved significantly over these months, and I also have a much more nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern politics. The biggest challenge I encountered in the internship was the remote working environment, as I initially struggled to discipline myself to put in the requisite number of hours in a situation where there was no direct supervision. However, I was able to overcome this challenge by changing my working environment, such as by doing more of my work at coffee shops and libraries (as visible in some of the attached pictures).

After the completion of this internship, I hope to receive academic credit for to contribute to my World Islamic and Middle East Studies requirements. I will thus be writing a research paper thematically similar to some of the work I produced in the internship, focusing on the history of Shi’i political theory leading up to modern times, and potentially its impact on Shi’i diasporic communities all around the globe. My supervisor for this project will be Prof. Malek Abisaab from the Islamic Studies department, who has written extensively on Shi’i communities in the Middle East in general and in Lebanon in particular.

In sum, this internship had an important impact on my university experience by simultaneously allowing me to implement the analytical and research skills I have gained over the last three years at McGill (in addition to the area-specific knowledge that my World Islamic and Middle East Studies program has taught me) in a tangible, real-life organization like the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs, while also learning much from this new working environment and the educational components inherent in the internship. The funding I received from McGill University was instrumental in allowing me to pursue this unpaid internship, as I otherwise would have had to work over the summer and therefore would not have been able to commit time to the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs.

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