A conference which aims to bridge the gap between academic research on Islam and public opinion regarding Muslims in the West will take place in Cambridge this week.

We hope to inform people accurately about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, so that they can make their own judgements and decisions.

Yasir Suleiman

Starting this afternoon (Wednesday, 28 March) the three-day event will deliberately address some of the major issues that have inhibited understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Among the topics under discussion will be the nature of Shariah Law, the wearing of the hijab, Islam’s compatibility with democracy, and allegations that Muslims are trying to “Islamize” non-Muslim countries.

The participants, who include some of the leading researchers in the field of Islamic Studies from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and the US, will be asked to outline the main findings of their latest research, and consider how they can be accessibly communicated to non-academic audiences.

The conference will include a media-training workshop for delegates, teaching them how to communicate their ideas through radio, television and the press. In addition a series of E-books, with contributions from everyone taking part, will be published after it has ended.

The event is being organised by the British Council and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at the University of Cambridge. Organisers say that one of their main aims is to reduce a perceived gulf between academics and the public at large regarding Islam and its integration into non-Muslim societies.

A key concern is that researchers specialising in Islam have an in-depth knowledge of such issues that is not being communicated properly to society as a whole. Many people’s knowledge of Islam comes from what they read, see or hear in the media. And in many cases, the dominant media narrative is a divisive one – stressing the views and activities of a fundamentalist minority.

Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the CIS at the University of Cambridge, said: “Our main aim is to bridge the gap between academic work and public perception, which is not something that academics have always given their full attention. The more we can work with the media and other organisations to draw on the specialist knowledge that the academic world has, the more public opinion will be rooted in reliable facts.”

“Sometimes this sort of activity is seen as an apology for Islam, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our main hope is to produce information for public consumption that informs people accurately about the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims and the nature of their co-existence, so that they can make their own judgements and decisions.”

One conference highlight will be a pre-launch discussion of the second phase of “Contextualising Islam in Britain”; a report which represents the collective thinking of a group of British Muslims who sought to answer the question: “What does it mean to live faithfully as a Muslim in Britain today?” The final report will be formally launched later this year.

More broadly, the event will touch on five key themes. These are:

  • Citizenship and identity: The session will examine the presiding narrative that Muslims cannot be fully integrated into western society and address accusations that some are seeking to “Islamize” the west.
  • Political participation: Drawing on the recent events of the Arab Spring, this will examine how far the traditional view that Islam is incompatible with democracy has been challenged, and whether it offers a set of values that in fact support democracy.
  • Islam, knowledge and innovation: Delegates will address the ongoing failure to acknowledge Islam’s contribution to science, culture and intellectual history in the west – and ask whether changing this picture would really make a valuable contribution to present debates.
  • Religion and the public space: The session will tackle the debate about the expression of religious beliefs in the public sphere in secular societies – with topics ranging from the hijab to halal food in schools – and ask how religious belief might best be articulated.
  • The power of words and images: A “Clash of Civilizations” narrative has dominated debate about Muslim and non-Muslim communities since 9/11. This discussion will ask whether academics can contribute to a more nuanced view of the dynamics underpinning such cultural encounters.

The conference is called “Acknowledging a Shared Past to Build a Shared Future; Rethinking Muslim non-Muslim Relations”. Partner organisations contributing to the event include the Woolf Institute; the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (UK); Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, University of Edinburgh; the Carnegie Corporation of New York; the Vodafone Foundation; the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Further information can be found at:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.