⛓️ Resolving the tension between academic freedom and EDI

We must find a way to uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression while embracing equality, diversity, and inclusion, including multiculturalism. Tariq Modood proposes a framework for distinguishing between Islamophobia and reasonable criticism of Islam and Muslims. This can serve as a foundation for the desired equilibrium

Tensions between academic freedom and EDI

When we hold commitments to both academic freedom and EDI, we must be prepared to face two key tensions:

  1. Neither commitment can be absolute, because each must be open to being qualified by the other, and;
  2. The two sets of commitments will clash at times.

These tensions are becoming more prevalent. They have also affected my research centre at the University of Bristol. In one instance, concerns were raised about a speaker’s views on whiteness, which it was alleged could have compromised the safety of non-white students.

Neither a commitment to academic freedom or to equality, diversity, and inclusion can be absolute. Each must be open to being qualified by the other

The most prominent case involved the sacking of a professor. The dismissal came after a concerted campaign and pressure from external organisations, including Parliament, regarding charges of antisemitism. In another case, a professor was exonerated from student allegations of Islamophobia. But certain course elements had to be dropped, against the professor’s wishes. This exemplifies the complexities universities face in addressing such problems, and underscores the challenges we face in upholding both academic freedom and EDI principles.

Finding the desired equilibrium is not only a concern for the University of Bristol. Cases from other universities are increasingly making their way into the news. Recent examples include strident campaigns, by teaching staff as well as students, calling for the dismissal of academics on the basis of their research and its alleged implications for EDI. Such campaigns sometimes also call for the cancellation of public lectures.

The left and the right

While much of the pressure on campus to limit research and discussion emerges from the left, challenges come from across the political spectrum. A right-wing example is the implementation of the 2015 Prevent Duties in the Public Sector Act in the UK. This Act obliges social services, healthcare providers and universities to monitor for signs of Islamic extremism among their staff and students. If they have any suspicions, they must report these to the security services.

The current UK government has also embraced right-wing proposals to monitor freedom of speech at universities. Transgressions could result in financial penalties. There are proposals to allow individual academics to sue their employer if they feel their academic freedom has not been respected. This development has many scholars concerned. We clearly need some principled thinking here.

Legal considerations and protections

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that the law already establishes some limits on academic freedom. These include prohibitions on hate speech, discrimination, and racial harassment. The law also defines and safeguards academic freedom itself, notably in the Education Reform Act of 1988 in the UK and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Additionally, employees of universities have certain legal protections.

But what to do with speech or writing that is not unlawful, but which our commitments to EDI call upon us to censure?

Distinguishing Islamophobia from criticism

In spring of 2018, the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims and Islamophobia (APPGBM) called for evidence to assist it in developing a working definition of Islamophobia. I submitted a paper in which I proposed a way to distinguish between Islamophobia and reasonable criticism of Islam and Muslims.

Is a given discourse Islamophobic, or reasonable criticism? To find the answer, we must examine the context and specific content of said discourse

In my paper, I used the following proposition as an example: ‘Muslim views about women are oppressive and not appropriate for modern Britain’. I asked whether it was Islamophobic or a reasonable criticism.

I suggested that the answer could not be determined solely by examining the proposition itself. Rather, it required consideration of a broader context. Part of the context would involve examining how Muslims were treated in a relevant society – in this case, Britain. But that alone would not answer the question, either. We needed something contextual but also more specific.

Five-question test

I therefore suggested applying a five-question test:

  1. Does the proposition stereotype Muslims in assuming they all think the same?
  2. Does it invite a dialogue with Muslims in which they would wish to participate? (As opposed to merely being about Muslims)
  3. Is mutual learning possible?
  4. Is the language civil and contextually appropriate?
  5. Are there insincere criticisms for ulterior motives?

If the answer to questions 1 and 5 is a ‘Yes’, or a ‘No’ to 2, 3, and 4, then we may indeed be dealing with Islamophobia. (Or, indeed, antisemitism, if we substitute 'Jews' for 'Muslims'.)

Of course, any discourse can have a mixed character. But the more the answers align with the pattern above, the more we should examine that discourse for its potentially racist character. It is important to note that this is not a litmus test with a single decisive colour result. I hope, however, it indicates what we should be looking for and why. This would allow it to become the basis for a discussion about whether a particular discourse is racist, or whether it is reasonable criticism.

Enhancing critical dialogue

The thread running through these questions is whether there is a potential for dialogue. It is questions like these that should determine what ‘others’ Muslims versus what can be part of a dialogue, even if a critical one, with Muslims. Ideally, we should strive to engage with (partly) Islamophobic discourses in a way that leads them to become less Islamophobic and more like reasonable, critical dialogue.

This may not always be possible. But at least we will have some idea of what we are looking for in terms of discourses that are reasonable and those that deserve censure.

Of course, censure does not mean censor, ban, disinvite or cancel, let alone sack. I am not suggesting that this addresses all difficult questions. But I believe that the test I have put forth offers a starting point that enables us to navigate the intersection of academic freedom and EDI. It addresses a specific area in which the reconciliation of these two commitments becomes necessary.

⛓️ Number 5 in a new Loop series examining constraints on academic freedom in a variety of global contexts

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Tariq Modood
Tariq Modood
Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy, and Director, University of Bristol Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS), University of Bristol

Tariq is co-founder of the international journal Ethnicities.

He has held over 40 grants and consultancies, has published over 35 (co-)authored and (co-)edited books and reports and over 350 articles and chapters.

He was awarded an MBE for services to social sciences and ethnic relations in 2001, was made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (UK) in 2004 and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2017.

In 2022 he was ranked in the top 20 UK cited scholars in Politics, Law, Sociology and Social Policy.

He served on the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, the National Equality Panel, and the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life.

YouTube channel


He tweets @TariqModood

Essays on Secularism and Multiculturalism By Tariq Modood

Essays on Secularism and Multiculturalism
ECPR Press, 2019

Multiculturalism, 2nd EditionTariq Modood

Multiculturalism (2nd edition)
Polity, 2013

Special Issues co-editor, with T. Sealy:

Beyond Euro-Americancentric Forms of Racism and Anti-racism
Political Quarterly, 2022

Global comparative analysis of the governance of religious diversity
Religion, State and Society, 2022


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