Day 10: Religious Diversity and the Secular University

How do we realise the ideal of religious diversity in relation to Islam within the contemporary University in the UK?

From 2 – 13 July 2018, invited senior scholars and select early career scholars are participating in a two-week CRASSH Summer School devoted to some of the most critical issues in the emergence of the modern university and one of the most fraught problems of our historical moment: the related questions of secularism and religious diversity. Scholars will be blogging for the duration of the workshop, so keep an eye on the CRASSH blog for regular updates. In the following post, Sami Everett provides a brief overview of Day 10's afternoon session.


How do we realise the ideal of religious diversity in relation to Islam within the contemporary University in the UK and what are the roles of institutions themselves in this process? Tania Saeed spoke to these questions in the last work-in-progress session of the Summer School. Her research focuses on Islamic student societies (ISocs) in the context of the governmental drive to further the reach of its Prevent strategy into the University. She conducted her research in various universities across the UK both in cities with significant Muslim populations and those with small populations. She paid particular attention to geopolitical context, student activism, structuring of student societies, and the role of women in the ISoc. Dr Saeed’s paper for the Summer School draws on supplementary material from that which she collected for her PhD dissertation, which is now a monograph: Islamophobia and Securitization: Religion, Ethnicity and the Female Voice. For a free preview of her book, please click here.

An important contribution to the debate of religious diversity on British campuses relates to the transnational dimension of ISocs. Dr Saeed spoke to the group about the interplay between contemporary Pakinstani politics, intergenerational feelings of British integration among students of Pakistani descent – for example students arguing that they are upholding British freedom of conscious by wearing the hijab – and the importance of honing in on questions of ethnicity and nationality in relation to the politics and structuring of ISocs. In the cases that she focused on, the political engagement of ISocs distances itself from the politics of the South East Asian region often focusing instead on the local – for example petitioning for space to prayer – and transnational ‘ummatic’ (from umma – global Muslim identification) questions for example pertaining to Palestine.

Tapping the transnational possibilities of the ISoc, Dr Saeed uses the notion of pedagogy as having emancipatory promise within such an organisation for reading and engaging with difference, as postulated by the educational sociologist Henry Giroux. Dr Saeed maps the activities of ISocs onto the framework of Giroux’s border-crosser student ideal-type – individuals who, from within a pedagogical context, shift the boundaries for thinking together. Dr Saeed tells an optimistic story of the ISoc as an involved, educated and open student protagonist but the framing of her work – instances of contact and sharing instigated by ISocs with other student bodies – are all relatively comfortable. The question of discomfort was raised as a possible injunction to the promise of transformative ISoc pedagogy. How have different ISocs dealt with internal Muslim diversity? How have they dealt with sensitive questions within the liberal ethos of the university such as homosexuality and legitimacy of political views for example in relation to support for the state of Israel? These are of course unresolved and perhaps unresolvable questions in terms of winning an argument. Discussion revolved instead around the framing of encounters with difference – particularly political difference. Dr Saeed showed how many students within ISocs have the feeling that it is the institution of the university that often shuts down debate or gauges radical voices. It is interesting that such a role of arbiter of freedom of speech should be institutionalised while fora for the expression of religious diversity should be outsourced to student bodies and societies.

Blog posts from the Summer School: 

​• Day 1 (Afternoon I)
Day 1 (Afternoon II)
Day 2 (Morning)
Day 2 (Afternoon I)
Day 2 (Afternoon II)
Day 3 (Afternoon I)
Day 3 (Afternoon II)
Day 4 (Afternoon II)
Day 5 (Afternoon I)
Day 5 (Afternoon II)
Day 6 (Afternoon I)
Day 6 (Afternoon II)
Day 7 (Afternoon I)
Day 7 (Afternoon II)
Day 8 (Afternoon I)
Day 8 (Afternoon II)
Day 9 (Afternoon I)
Day 9 (Afternoon II) 
Day 10 (Afternoon I)

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Posted: Wednesday 18 July 2018

Contributor: Sami Everett