Religion in the Public Sphere: Comparing the Iranian and British Experiences

This project examines religion's role in public life in modern Iran and Britain, identifying contrasting and common elements. In the 1960s and 1970s, many politicians, journalists and academics in both Iran and Britain had argued that religion's influence on public life will wither away as the two societies become more 'secular' through the modernising process. Experience since then has demonstrated that religion and religious identity have remained central to political culture and public life of both countries. This project compares the experiences of Britain and Iran, analysing the potential future role of religion in the public life of both countries. By bringing together emerging scholars and students from British and Iranian universities for workshops and summer schools, and by facilitating two early career fellowships, the project aims to facilitate intellectual exchange and long-term research collaboration between British and Iranian institutions on this subject.

This project is made possible by the British Academy International Partnership scheme. The UK-based collaborators are Professor Esther D. Reed (Theology and Religion) and Professor Robert Gleave (Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies) of the University of Exeter.

Research theme

The role of religion in public life continues to be much disputed in both the British and the Iranian contexts. Central research issues include the influence of religion on the provision of services, including education, health and the administration of justice, the role of religion in promoting human rights and the manner in which religious values might inform public policy. The debates in each of these areas contribute to a larger general debate about the nature of the "modernisation process", and whether religion has any role to play in a contemporary nation state. Engaging with the broader theme of how religious values might contribute to public policy formation will form the focus of activities within this partnership proposal.


The differing contexts of Iran and Britain have contributed to differing academic commentary on the role of religion in public life. In Iran, the Revolution of 1979 brought in an intensification of religious influence on policy formation in health, education, transport, law, economics and planning. This process, sometimes called Islamisation, offered religion as a source which could inspire all (or most) public policy objectives. In more recent times, this totalising religious justification has, to an extent, given way to a division of labour between religious and non-religious justifications for policy. Islam remains the overall inspiration and theoretical justification for the structure of the state; however, on the detail of, for example, transport planning or the provision of basic services (water, gas, electricity), policy is linked to broader aims and objectives (cost, efficiency, utility). These broader aims and objectives are said to contribute towards a more developed, and hence better resourced society, which in turn can be justified by generalised Islamic values; but the perceived need for a specifically Islamic inspired sewerage system (for example) so prevalent in the days following the revolution has subsided, and in many ways Iranian policy formation in these areas is not different from non-Islamic states. Running concurrently with this change in the role of religion as a justificatory factor in public policy, there has been extensive academic discussion about the "Islamisation" of knowledge generally, and whether Islam, broadly conceived, can accommodate the findings and methods of the both the natural and social sciences. The general, but not dominant, view is that many of the conclusions of science and humanities can inform public policy without being grounded in Islamic justifications.

In a British context, the reduced role of the Church of England in public life is often cited as an indication that religiously informed public policy is on the wane. There is a general agreement that religious justifications for health or education policy have a very limited role to play in policy formation. However, stories which focus on the contrast between religious requirements and the demands of public policy frequently intrude on political debate. Recent examples include: the right (or lack of it) of service providers with a religious objection to homosexuality (such as B&B owners or Adoption Agencies) to exclude homosexual couples from accessing services, the reaction of religious communities to proposals for the teaching of sex education to children through the state school system, religious representation in a reformed House of Lords, the role of faith-based organizations as 'third sector' providers of welfare, the right of individuals to wear religiously significant clothing and jewellery whilst in places of work. There is general agreement amongst the policy makers that religion or religious principles cannot and should not be cited as the reason for particular policies. Nevertheless, the tension between religiously neutral policy objectives and the needs and requirements of religious groups (both Christians and others) is a recurrent feature of political debate within a supposedly secular cultural environment.

Research objectives

The objectives of this project are to:

  • enable emerging scholars and students in both Iran and the UK researching the role of religion in public life to share their perspectives and develop comparative perspectives which will raise the quality of scholarship on this topic in both the UK and Iran;
  • establish a network of contacts between British and Iranian scholars working in this area which will outlive the project life and provide a resource for future collaboration;
  • identify the main areas of shared concern, and the areas of distinctive difference between the British and Iranian context, and to identify areas which could fruitfully profit from a comparative and collaborative approach;
  • raise the capacity of both UK-based and Iranian scholars to deal with issues connected with religion in public life.


Since the individual projects of the scholars involved in the project are diverse, the methodologies employed will exhibit a multi-disciplinary character. In terms of the project over all, though, the methodology will be based on the principle that scholarly advancement develops most productively through sustained research contacts between researchers of different perspectives. The three activities associated with the project aim to facilitate opportunities for research sharing.

Programme of activities

Year 1 (October 2010-September 2011)

  • Early Career Visiting fellow from Iran to come Exeter for a period of 2 months. Please check here again for dates of seminars and other activities.
  • Workshop 1 in Iran. Three days to include seminars, tutorials and other classes.

Year 2 (October 2011-September 2012)

  • Preparation for and completion of Summer School to be held in Exeter

Year 3 (October 2012-September 2013)

  • Early Career Visiting fellow from UK to visit Iran.
  • Summer School to be held in Iran - 5 days of classes, research seminars, presentation of research and exploration of further collaboration.
  • Workshop 2 in UK. Three days to include seminars, tutorials and other classes.