Building a Shared Future: An E-Book Series on Islam in the US & Europe

28-30 March 2012
Møller Centre, University of Cambridge

Presented by the British Council and the Centre of Islamic Studies.
Partner organisations contributing to the event include the Woolf InstituteAssociation of Muslim Social Scientists (UK)Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, University of Edinburghthe Carnegie Corporation of New Yorkthe Vodafone Foundationthe Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Building a Shared Future: An E-Book Series on Islam in the US & Europe

These e-books address four themes in public dialogue about Islam: ‘The Power of Words and Images’, ‘Citizenship and Identity’, ‘Islam, Knowledge and Innovation’, and ‘Religion, Politics and the Public Sphere’. They are collections of essays written for a conference held in Cambridge in March 2012, ‘Building a Shared Future: Rethinking Muslim/non-Muslim Relations’, organised by the Centre of Islamic Studies and the British Council’s Our Shared Future project. Contributing authors include scholars, academics, journalists and civil society leaders from the US and Europe.

This conference invites participants to articulate narratives and messaging that reflect an inclusive approach to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. These will be divided into five themes with associated groups of participants:
1. Citizenship and identity
2. Political participation
3. Islam, knowledge and innovation
4. Religion and the public space
5. The power of words and images

The second day of the event will provide participants with the opportunity to work with media professionals to develop effective messaging around the inclusive narratives as well as valuable skills for engagement with online, print, and broadcast media.

• Develop and articulate balanced and informed arguments that will help address divisive narratives about relations between Muslims and non-Muslims
• Recommend areas of research and partnership opportunities among institutions in the US, Europe and the MENA region that can help shed light on deep connections and reciprocal influence between Muslim and non-Muslim societies in the fields of culture, the arts, humanities and science
• Forge partnerships and propose initiatives to advance public understanding of diversity within Muslim communities, and of constructive interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims
• Develop messages, arguments and dissemination strategies aimed at improving understanding of Muslim/non-Muslim relations among the media and the general public.

Read more about the reports:
Building a Shared Future: The Power of Words and Images
Building a Shared Future: Citizenship and Identity
Building a Shared Future: Islam, Knowledge and Innovation
Building a Shared Future: Religion, Politics and the Public Sphere

The full conference programme is available from here.

Building a Shared Future: The Power of Words and Images
PDF: click here
iBookstore: click here

Building a Shared Future: Citizenship and Identity
PDF: click here
iBookstore: click here

Building a Shared Future: Islam, Knowledge and Innovation
PDF: click here
iBookstore: click here

Building a Shared Future: Religion, Politics and the Public Sphere
PDF: click here
iBookstore: click here


News and Media

A shared future based on a shared past, Cambridge University Research News, 28 March 2012

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.

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.

We’re not just talking about Islam, Sharon Memis, Director of the British Council in the United States, Huffington Post, 13 July 2012.

For the last decade, discussions of Islam in the UK, the US, and much of continental Europe have revolved around a narrative of opposition: the Muslim World versus the West, sharia law versus democracy, Islamic civilisation versus Judeo-Christian. What nearly always goes unacknowledged are the shared histories, shared identities, and shared struggles of Muslims in those countries with their non-Muslim neighbours.

These commonalities are hardly visible in the media, despite the fact that they are a part of everyday life. But academic research tells a different story, one that shows that when the public discussion turns to Muslims, we’re not just talking about Islam, but rather a variety of social, historical, and political issues faced by a much more inclusive population. So what are the stories that we’re missing?

A recently published series of e-books gathers essays from a diverse group of academics, civil society leaders, and even some journalists in the UK, US, and across Europe that illuminate some of these stories, based on discussions that took place at a conference organised by the British Council’s Our Shared Future project and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge earlier this year.

To begin with, the essays in the Building a Shared Future series point out our shared history with Muslims. British scholar Dr Caroline Finkel notes in Citizenship and Identity, “When Britain was merely an inhospitable archipelago clinging to the edge of a continent – and America was still being ‘discovered’ – the chattering classes looked to the [Ottoman] sultan’s domains for inspiration as to how power might be exercised in society.” She continues, “We need to accept that people as well as goods have always flowed between east and west and that our history is not ‘ours’ alone.” Dr Finkel debunks the idea of a separate ‘Islamic’ history relegated to a chapter in school text books (if that) by pointing out the long influence of Islamic civilisations on Britain.

There’s a second false distinction that persists in contemporary Britain – and in the rest of Europe and the US – that Muslims are always immigrants. In Religion, Politics and the Public Sphere, the Cordoba Foundation’s Florence Laufer argues otherwise: ‘While a part of the Muslim population in the West has indeed an immigrant background, let us remember that Islam is rooted in the old continent’s history and that many if not most European Muslims are full-fledged citizens of their countries.’

It’s important to recognise the diverse backgrounds that constitute our national cultures in contemporary society. As Mark Hammond of the Equality and Human Rights Commission writes, “It is indisputable that Britain has benefited for centuries from its own Muslim heritage. There is much more to be gained from the sharing of culture and art, humour and humility.”

With so much in common, why do many continue to view their Muslim countrymen differently? M.H. Vorthoren sees one source of this misinformation in the media, writing, “Problems with mostly social and economic causes that are caused and/or experienced by people who also happen to be Muslim are soon pictured as ‘Islamic’ problems.” But that’s not always the case.

Around the world, many of today’s social and political struggles are shared. In Islam, Knowledge, and Innovation, my British Council colleague Martin Rose writes from Morocco of the similarities across continents: “Young people feel that they are suffering the consequences of their elders’ sins and that the political systems of their own countries are unresponsive and incapable of delivering the radical change that many (and not just the young) see as necessary.”

Globalisation and modern technology have given us great opportunities to connect with people beyond our own national borders. Regardless of the impressions given by mainstream media, seeking out personal experiences with people of diverse cultures can only help to increase our understanding of them. Ms. Vorthoren emphasised this when she wrote, “In my experience, the best way to build relations and touch people’s hearts is to have actual face-to-face encounters, whether it is in the neighbourhood, at school, at the workplace, in the mosque or in the church or synagogue.” Creating such opportunities for people to build trust among their neighbours, near and far, is at the heart of what the British Council does, and it may well be the key to bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims, too.