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Media, faith and security

Protecting Freedom of Expression in Religious Context

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Mainstream media reporting about Muslim communities is contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility toward Muslims in Britain, according to a University of Cambridge/ESRC roundtable discussion held at the House of Lords to mark the first anniversary of the attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. In addition, the Muslim community’s fragmentation, and lack of professional training in working with the media means it is ill-equipped to counter negative narratives by promoting more balanced reporting. The outcome is a serious breakdown in the multicultural agenda. 

The Roundtable addressed the links between media, faith and security, and posed the critical question:  How have current events, such as the Charlie Hebdo affair, affected the responsibilities and limits associated with freedom of speech  and the need to protect both human rights and human life?

The findings, drawn from research developed across the University of Cambridge and presented in six papers and one report, highlighted the strength of individual resilience in the face of perceived slights or hate incidents, but likewise that civil society organizations in minority communities were less adept at media engagement to balance a narrative that is increasingly dividing British society.




The  studies showed growing Muslim minority group isolation from the media and society at large, an increasingly dangerous ignorance by the British public of the positive contributions to social harmony by Muslim communities, and inherent contradictions in both media and government approaches to framing and contextualising radicalisation, counter-radicalisation, and extremism containment:


  1. Roxane Farmanfarmaian, lead scholar on the project and principal at the Centre of the International Studies of the Middle East and North Africa (CIRMENA) observed British minority group disaffection with local media was encouraging their members to turn to media from their regions of origin, in which role models and discourses were perceived as more appealing – but which ideologically, may be concerning for government.
  2. Government views many such discourses with suspicion, according to research by Mike Clark. His work on Hezbollah indicates its adoption of softer approaches to local and diaspora engagement in the face of current ISIS terrorist activities - a change ignored by Government. 
  3. A feeling of endangerment attached to the still ill-defined phrase, ‘vocal  expression of radicalisation’, in the PREVENT strategy, according to Clara Eroukhmanoff, is reducing trust in the rights of free-expression within minority communities as social tension rises. Individuals in these groups perceive themselves as at risk of being targeted by security and counter-extremist programmes– a not unfounded concern based on Eroukhmanoff’s research into US practices of mounting sting operations against citizens loosely labelled as radical.
  4. This is inducing increasing self-censorship, while at the same time, according to Julian Hargreaves of the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS), individuals in these communities are adopting postures of resilience as self-protection to deflect daily slights, and acts of hate perceived as directed toward them.
  5. Cooperation among Muslim and non-Muslim groups, charities and faith organizations produces positive social engagement that can extend even to shared security measures, according to the Woolf Institute’s Shana Cohen; the effect is positive, if generally unrecognized, areas of harmony in British society at large.
  6. Such resilience, however, does not uniformly extend to Islamic Centres, mosques and other organizations within the fragmented Islamic community, which are often confronted with media scrutiny. Additionally, research by the Divinity Faculty’s Christopher Moses, revealed a  lack of journalistic literacy about the roles of Islamic institution in the production of many mainstream media accounts. This underscores a need for stronger communications training and media-engagement planning, and closer collaboration between Islamic institutions and journalists when pursuing sensitive stories.
Legislators, members of the judiciary and law enforcement, mainstream media from both the Middle East and Britain, representatives of faith communities, and academics from both Cambridge and other universities, discussed the findings in real-world contexts. The focus was to develop practical ways to protect freedom of speech in religious contexts, promote integration and further the successes of multi-culturalism so as to reduce, rather than build up, a grey zone of disaffection. The following ten points were proposed for joint action by policymakers and the media.

FreeExpression Blog



This project is designed to open up debate on a difficult subject: A debate about freedom of expression and freedom of belief and how to balance freedoms with protections, rights with limits?

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