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Centre for the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa


ESRC LogoESRC Impact Acceleration Grant  ,                                     

Principal Investigator: Dr Roxane Farmanfarmaian


Media, faith and security: Protecting Freedom of Expression in Religious Context



In order to stimulate knowledge exchange between academics, members of the media, faith leaders and policy-makers on issues surrounding freedom of expression, a one-day workshop is proposed that engages University of Cambridge–conducted research on European and Middle Eastern media responses to Charlie Hebdo, on the hate crime against British Muslim communities, and on the religious sensibilities at play.  Research conducted by the Media in Political Transition Project at POLIS indicates that Charlie Hebdo, the latest calamity to spotlight the resentments first triggered by the ‘Satanic Verses’ twenty years ago, was very differently presented in Western and Muslim media, and that broader debate around these differences is critical to reducing the disaffection and distrust marring Muslim and non-Muslim relations. The British media chose not to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but strongly supported the unfettered rights of the pen; by contrast, MENA region media focused on nuances of blasphemy and defamation.  Freedom of speech was interpreted as inalienable, but the responsibilities that accompany it, couched in religious sensibility, were equally important in Turkish, Moroccan and Tunisian media. Indeed, how freedom of speech is interpreted by legal, ethical and communication experts in Muslim states is diverging from Western, or even globally established tenets. Yet, as these differences are expressed in the public square, research conducted by the Centre of Islamic Studies at Cambridge reveals that hate crime is rising against British Muslim communities. In bringing this research, with its various nuances, to the attention of policy-makers facing the challenge of protecting society’s freedoms, and by utilizing the data and analyses of these studies combined with the expertise in faith relations at the Woolf Institute, the purpose of this day-long workshop would be four-fold:

1. To share research on current media discourses surrounding freedom of expression and responsibility.

 2. To discuss and define the core dilemmas:  What are, if any, the limits of offence? What are, if any, the limits of defence? How are these to be mediated in a manner that protects human rights and human life? These complex issues are seizing policy-makers and the public at large, but defining them in universally acceptable language that eschews polemics has proven elusive.

3. To provide impact through novel approaches within the frameworks of law, policy and media;

4. To highlight the importance of conducting further research that explores attitudes held by non-Muslims towards Muslims and visa versa, how such attitudes are shaped by high-profile news events such as the Paris murders, and determine how they impact the lives of British Muslim, Jewish, and other British faith communities.

 Within the context of heightened political and social tension, it is important firstly, to convey the necessity for conducting robust empirical research around anti-Muslim as well as other hate crime incidents, particularly those which evade capture by official recording measures, whilst secondly, inspiring new ideas to use such information to help construct policy, mediate public awareness, and develop training and other programmes to protect vulnerable communities.



Aim 1. ‘On the ground impact/knowledge exchange’: The workshop will enhance awareness at the public level of research and evidence-based knowledge conducted through several initiatives at Cambridge in key areas for policy-making. The workshop will likewise enable development of new contacts and liaisons between engaged academics, media representatives, faith leaders and political/government figures, and provide a learning opportunity across sectors. Importantly, it will raise fundamental questions and encourage debate in a safe environment about legal, ethical and mediation of the issues raised around freedom of religious sensibility, responsibility, blasphemy and freedom of expression.

Aim 2. ‘Engagement’: Lay the groundwork for ongoing engagement between academics and the public sector, media representatives, faith communities and third sector organizations involved in these issues, in order to further long-term impact through research sharing that promotes learning and debate, and informs outputs from government and the media (British and MENA). Media engagement will be an impact indicator (exemplified by Radio 4’s coverage of the January 29, 2015 Woolf Institute seminar, ‘Freedom to Offend: A path to conflict?, led by Rowan Williams, Atif Imtiaz and Ed Kessler ( . Nuance and awareness expressed in official statements would indicate engagement and impact on the policy front. Publishing an academic paper drawn from the workshop report in a peer-review journal will broaden academic impact.

Aim 3. ‘Promoting best practice across social science research’: Blogs to appear on the websites of all three University collaborators in this project will encourage awareness of the research and promote new linkages in the academic interpretation of the work already conducted. This will not only increase the impact of what are at the moment discreet areas of research within Cambridge, but will aim to reflect the practical considerations that are expected to surface in the workshop, and thereby contribute to promoting best practices in this area of social science research.


A. Impact outcomes: A report, followed by an academic paper, that combines the research knowledge of the three collaborating Cambridge partners and the ‘field’ knowledge and debates introduced at the workshop; blogs on the websites of the University of Cambridge-Al-Jazeera Media Project, the Centre of Islamic Studies, and the Woolf Institute, that encourage ongoing scholarly debate and raised awareness both within the University and beyond; ongoing liaison activities including concrete knowledge-transfer to faith communities increasingly having to face freedom of expression issues; programming both in the British and MENA media reflecting and indeed highlighting the knowledge-exchange raised in the workshop and report as well as the actualized impact of new ways of thinking about and addressing these issues; increased awareness within Cambridge of related research work being conducted in other areas of the University that can promote ongoing liaison among academics with the aim of increasing impact and collaboration. Over the long term, enduring liaison, and, based on the impact of this project, the ability to obtain resources to develop future research that can have longer-term impact.

B. Beneficiaries: Members of the policy-making community including MPs, members of government, MENA media representatives, British media, Muslim and other faith community leaders in Britain and engaged academics at the University of Cambridge.

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