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Durham University

Research & business

Report calls for higher education to empower Muslim voices

(14 July 2020)

A fresh debate on future models of university citizenship is called for by a new report, based on a survey of students nationally conducted by Durham and three other universities.

The report recommends that the higher education sector empowers Muslim and other marginal voices, fosters respect and develops knowledge of Islam and Muslims as well as builds stronger links between universities and Muslim colleges.

Prevent strategy

The researchers suggest that the UK Government’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy has tended to reinforce negative stereotypes of Muslims and has encouraged a culture of mutual suspicion and surveillance on university campuses.

The UK Government considers the Prevent initiative an essential means of tackling radicalisation as part of its counter-terrorism strategy. Prevent requires faith leaders, teachers, doctors and others to refer any suspicions about people to a local Prevent body.

The survey of 2,022 students at 132 UK universities found that students who agreed with the government on this issue were more likely to express negative views about Islam and Muslims.

It showed that students who see radicalisation as a problem on university campuses are four times more likely to believe that Muslims have not made a valuable contribution to British life.

Self-censorship

The report also finds that the Government’s Prevent initiative appears to have the effect of discouraging free speech within universities.

Students and staff self-censor their discussions to avoid becoming the object of suspicion and are sometimes discouraged from exploring, researching, or teaching about Islam. Only a quarter of the students in the survey say they feel entirely free to express their views on Islam within university contexts.

More than 50 per cent of students acknowledged having limited, little or no knowledge of Islam.

While the majority of students expressed generally positive views about Islam and Muslims, 42.6 per cent agree that Islam is a religion that discriminates against women with a further 34.8 per cent choosing neither to agree nor disagree.

Interfaith relations

The research reveals harmony and good practice, some excellent Islamic Studies teaching and warm, sincere interfaith contacts. More than 70 per cent of students agree that Muslims have made a valuable contribution to British life with 85 per cent agreeing that the majority of Muslims are good people.

Despite widespread positivity towards Islam and interfaith relations, the research also finds some clear evidence of unconscious bias, casual racism and discrimination with around a fifth of students (Christians, Muslims and the non-religious) believing Islam is incompatible with British values.

Social and religious cohesion

At Durham, we are very proud of our diverse community of staff and students and we aim for it to be an inclusive environment which welcomes people of all faiths and none. Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Antony Long, talks more about our work on social and religious cohesion here.

Find out more

  • The report is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project entitled “Re/presenting Islam on Campus” and is a collaboration led by SOAS University of London working with Lancaster, Durham and Coventry Universities.
  • Follow report lead author Professor Mathew Guest from our Department of Theology and Religion on Twitter
  • The in-depth findings will be published by Oxford University Press in the book ‘Islam on Campus: Contested Identities and the Cultures of Higher Education in Britain’ in September 2020.
  • The research team conducted a national survey completed by 2,022 students at 132 UK universities, followed by interviews and focus groups with 253 staff and students at six higher education institutions, including four universities and two Muslim colleges of Higher Education.

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