CIRIS Research Associate Leor Zmigrod Publishes Paper on Psychology of Brexit Voting


Leor Zmigrod

CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Leor Zmigrod has published a paper on the psychological processes that give rise to nationalistic ideologies in the context of the United Kingdom’s 2016 EU Referendum. The research identified cognitive information processing styles that contribute towards support for Brexit and opposition to immigration and free movement of labour. Specifically, the findings suggest that cognitive flexibility and acceptance of uncertainty predict less nationalistic attitudes. The study highlights the importance of looking beyond purely demographic factors when studying voting behaviour. The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and has been covered by the Guardian, The Times, and The Independent, amongst others.

Cambridge University press release



Interview: New Report on Muslim Humanitarianism

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 7.41.13 PMThe British Council recently released a report on The Muslim Humanitarian Sector co-authored by Abbas Barzegar and Nagham El Karhili, two scholars based at Georgia State University. In their introduction, Barzegar and El Nagham state the “report provides a summary of the major issues emerging from a year of dialogue based focused groups and stakeholder research aimed at better understanding the barriers to, and opportunities for, greater cooperation with the global Muslim aid and development sector.”

In this interview CIRIS research associates Chris Moses and Tobias Muller engage with the co-authors on the key issues highlighted in the report.


CIRIS: What is the biggest misunderstanding about the Muslim humanitarian sector?

Abbas Barzegar: That it exists. What I mean is that most people, including mainstream practitioners and policy makers, simply don’t know how entrenched Muslim humanitarian organizations are in the international relief and development landscape.

Nagham El Karhili: Unfortunately, the biggest misunderstanding about the Muslim humanitarian sector is the fact that they are, in one way or another, linked to terrorist organizations. As the second section of our report mentions, the Muslim humanitarian sector as a whole has been negatively affected by the out-growth of post-9/11 counter-terrorist finance (CTF) policies. Although they are recognized by many as some of the most impactful organizations on the ground, the constant scrutiny and pressures on these organizations have resulted in high profile cases of failed investigations and prosecutions which further erode the capacity for cooperation. The sector as a whole has invested heavily in trying to shift this narrative through their work with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), as the primary regulatory body responsible for adversely impacting the ability of global civil society to operate in fragile and conflict prone environments. As a result of these efforts, FATF revisited the language of Recommendation 8 and issued an official revision of the text in 2016, which now encourages a risk-based, proportional approach to managing the threat of terrorist abuse of the non-profit sector.

CIRIS: To what extent is the Muslim NGO experience unique? 

Abbas Barzegar: In many ways, it is quite predictable. For example, in regards to operating procedures, types of services offered, and so forth. Like their Christian counterparts, they do spend quite a bit of attention on post-relief operations and naturally venture into education, economics, and psycho-social services. However, particular structures of Islamic faith and practice occasion a whole of distinct practices: considering everything from Ramadan and Hajj welfare packages to interest-free micro-loans, there are activities that are unique to the way Muslim organizations prioritize their activities.

Nagham El Karhili: The experience of Muslim NGOs is rather unique due to their position in the aid and development field, along with the politicization of their work. The sector is almost at a double disadvantage due to the fact that not only do these organizations have to deal with issues of credibility as faith-based organizations (FBOs), but also, they are the main target of counter terrorist finance policy. Although the organizations have increased their efforts to operate more transparently by publishing financial reports, abiding with the various requirements, and working in collaboration with other faith based and secular actors, trust-building seems to be a rather slow process.

CIRIS: In the report you mention that there seems to be a consensus that faith-based organisations are particularly well placed to address challenges like political conflict, violence and extremism. What makes these organisations more effective?


Abbas Barzegar (photo credit : Georgia State University)

Abbas Barzegar: It is often reported that they earn a greater level of trust by grassroots actors and therefore demonstrate more buy-in and follow-through among actors. Factors such as cultural and religious proximity help develop this sensibility, but studies have also shown that theology and shared faith are less important than the simple sense of long-term and holistic investment. Because faith-based groups are less restricted by international aid and relief norms, they often expand their programming beyond the immediate needs of shelter, food, etc. Instead, faith-based groups are seen by beneficiaries as being committed to long-term solutions. Hence, for sensitive issues related to social and political conflict that require trust and commitment, faith-based groups simply seem to be much more versatile than conventional NGOs.


Nagham El Karhili (photo credit: Georgia State University)

Nagham El Karhili: Muslim NGOs are best positioned to address a variety of challenges due to their access and credibility with beneficiaries. Given the fact that Muslim aid organizations are operative in some of the most conflict-ridden areas and have considerable access to human resources, it is clear that the sector as a whole has now positioned itself as a key partner in the delivery of critical aid and relief to some of the most vulnerable populations around the world. This is especially important given that a disproportionate amount of the now unprecedented number of forcibly displaced peoples stem from Muslim societies in and around the greater MENA region.

CIRIS: To what extent does the religious agenda of these organisations harbour the danger of preferring to give aid to some groups while marginalising others?

Abbas Barzegar: This is a legitimate concern for all stakeholders involved. However, like the well-trodden path of Christian NGOs, large, independent Muslim NGOs – by which I mean not affiliated with a government or particular religious structure – operate under international norms of neutrality and non-discrimination. They have long-track records and partnerships in that can demonstrate this trend. Of course, there are expansive networks that still blur the line between proselytization and charity—just like many Christian groups—but these actors are not the focus of our study and do not quite represent the sector as such.

Nagham El Karhili: Throughout our research we were quickly faced with the fact that the majority of Muslim NGOs overwhelmingly identify as religiously inspired rather than having a religious agenda. This is seen through their clearly articulated vision and values which specify their commitment to serving those in needs regardless of their religious affiliation. Furthermore, this is seen in practice in the scope of the work of these organizations: they serve religiously diverse beneficiaries and have been collaborating with some of the biggest faith-based and secular actors alike.

CIRIS: When you recommend “augment[ing] renewed efforts of collaboration and coordination between the mainstream development community and the Muslim humanitarian sector”, is it possible to suggest that this is part of a wider challenge? That is to say, is this specific goal part of a broader set of issues relating to how the mainstream development community might need to re-think and re-focus its current work and efforts?

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Interview: Christopher Douglas on ‘Religion and Fake News’

Religion and Fake News cover

In January 2018 CIRIS released a fascinating new report by Prof Chris Douglas on religion and fake news. The report explores the religious dimension of fake news in both Europe and the United States and offers recommendations for how policymakers and other leaders can fight back against faith-based fake news.

Christopher Douglas teaches American literature and religion at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He wrote the report for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy, which CIRIS serves as secretariat.

(Click here for a version of the report with hyperlinks rather than endnotes.)

In this interview, members of the CIRIS team engage Prof Douglas on several of the issues raised in his report.


CIRIS: In your report you identify three asymmetries when it comes to religion and fake news in the US and Europe. What are those asymmetries and why do they matter?

Douglas: First, in the 2016-17 elections, fake news circulated more among Americans than Europeans. Second, fake news circulates among conservatives more than liberals. Third, fake news targeting conservatives often features religious themes.

In my paper I try to figure out why those asymmetries exist. I hypothesize that part of the explanation is the history in the U.S. of a particular faith tradition – white Christian fundamentalism – that cultivated skepticism to mainstream sources of knowledge like universities and professional journalism. This faith tradition didn’t just oppose modern knowledge – it cultivated institutions of counter-expertise to oppose ideas like evolution, Bible criticism, and now climate change.

CIRIS: You argue that the “alternative information ecosystem” of conservative American Protestant evangelicalism has made that community particularly vulnerable to fake news. And yet all religious communities create, at least to some extent, their own distinctive institutions that reinforce their belief systems. Why have American evangelicals proven more vulnerable than, say, American Catholics?

Douglas: Conservative American Protestant evangelicals – or, more narrowly, fundamentalists – contested two academic ideas that have generally been accepted by Catholics and mainline Protestants. The fundamentalist tradition was born in opposition to the science of evolution and to the historical-critical method of Biblical criticism, especially as they accelerated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These bodies of modern expertise are officially and generally (to the extent they are understood) accepted by American Catholics and mainline Protestant churches.

What makes American fundamentalism distinct is its construction of a significant network of counter-expertise supporting its theological views on creationism and the inerrant, literal Word of God. Christian fundamentalist Bible colleges and universities, publishers and bookstores, newspapers and magazines, radio and then television shows, museums, websites, and campus ministries, together formed an infrastructure of institutions that resisted elite, secular expert knowledge. This extensive network has no sizable analogue in other Western countries.

CIRIS: For decades religious conservatives have rebuked secular liberals for replacing objective truth with subjectivism and relativism. Now it seems the script has flipped. How did we end up in this odd historical situation where those proclaiming a commitment to truth are falling for fake news and relativists are preaching the importance of objective truth? 

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CIRIS Co-sponsors 2-day Workshop on ‘Islam and Space in Europe’

IMG_1836CIRIS Research Associates Tobias Muller and Chris Moses organised a workshop, “Religious? Secular? Re-thinking Islam and Space in Europe”,  together with Adela Taleb (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). CIRIS was one of the sponsors of the two-day event, which brought together twenty scholars from a diverse range of fields, including anthropology, political science, music, architecture, geography, sociology, criminology, and religious studies. The workshop featured keynotes by Dr Marian Burchardt (Universität Leipzig) and Professor Riem Spielhaus (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen), a public lecture by Professor Kim Knott (Lancaster University) on “Thinking Spatially About Islam in Europe”, along with five panel-based discussions.

Three CIRIS Staff Participate in Trento Conference on Religion and Violence

IMG_0510CIRIS was well represented at a 10-12 October conference in Trento, Italy on Exiting Violence: The Role of Religion. From Texts to Theories. CIRIS Managing Director Judd Birdsall presented a paper on religion and American diplomacy, CIRIS Senior Research Associate (and FBK Associate Researcher) Pasquale Annicchino moderated several panels, and CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Matthew Rowley was awarded a scholarship to attend. The conference was hosted by Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) in collaboration with Reset Dialogues on Civilizations and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.


CIRIS Research Associate Margot Dazey Awarded Fellowship at Yale

image_normalCIRIS Graduate Research Associate Margot Dazey has been awarded a Fox International Fellowship to spend the year at Yale University. Fox Fellows are selected for their potential to offer practical solutions to the problems which stand in the way of the world’s peace and prosperity. Hosted at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Margot will be completing her doctoral dissertation on Islamic moral entrepreneurs in France.






Clare College’s CIRIS Awarded $330,000 from Luce Foundation

Cambridge, UK – The Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies (CIRIS), a research centre based at Clare College, Cambridge, has received a three-year grant of $330,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation in support of its role as the secretariat for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD).

The TPNRD Secretariat facilitates communication, coordination, and collaboration among North American and European diplomats whose portfolios include religion-related foreign policy issues. The network is co-chaired by officials from the US State Department and the European External Action Service.

Officially established with support from the Luce Foundation in 2015, the TPNRD builds on the momentum of several antecedent initiatives, including the British Council’s Luce-funded ‘Bridging Voices’ programme. This new grant will enable the TPNRD Secretariat to continue organising biannual conferences and commissioning research papers for the TPNRD whilst also deepening engagement between diplomats and scholars by developing an academic advisory council and creating an online library of resources on religion and diplomacy.

CIRIS Managing Director Judd Birdsall also serves as Executive Director of the TPNRD. A former US diplomat himself, Birdsall received his PhD in Politics and International Studies at Clare College where he is currently a College Research Associate.

“In a world where religion continues to be a pervasive and politically salient force, for both good and ill, the TPNRD is helping our participating foreign ministries enhance their capacity to understand religious dynamics and engage religious communities,” Birdsall said. “I am grateful for the Luce Foundation’s generous support for the TPNRD’s efforts to foster transatlantic conversation and partnership in the field of religion and foreign affairs.”

Clare College Bursar Paul Warren said, “Clare College is delighted to host CIRIS and to facilitate its important work, including its role as the Secretariat for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy.”

About the Luce FoundationThe Henry Luce Foundation seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities. Launched in 2005, the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, aims to provide intellectual leadership, develop new paradigms for research and teaching, create new resources and networks, and enhance public understanding of and discussion about religion in the international sphere.

About the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International StudiesCIRIS is a multi-disciplinary research centre based at Clare College, Cambridge that provides students, policymakers, and the general public with credible and engaging insights to shape new scholarship, sound policy, and constructive debate on the role of faith in global affairs. For more information, please visit

CIRIS contact:


CIRIS Research Associate Tobias Müller Contributes Chapter to Report on Muslims in Europe

13 July 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Tobias Müller recently contributed a chapter in a report on Muslims in the UK and Europe published by the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. Müller’s chapter, ‘Constructing Islam and Secularism in the German Islam Conference,’ argues that beyond the intentions expressed by government officials, the aims of the Conference and the expectations towards Muslims prescribe major restructuring measures of the Muslim community, cooperation with security agencies, and alignment with an undetermined set of “German values.” The full report, co-edited by Paul Anderson and Julian Hargreaves, presents papers from a symposium the Centre for Islamic Studies held in May 2016.

CIRIS Facilitates Diplomatic Network Conference in Helsinki

2 June 2017 – This week CIRIS facilitated a conference in Helsinki, in collaboration with the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy (TPNRD). The network met with the Lutheran Archbishop of Finland, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Helsinki, and with a range of Helsinki-based scholars and practitioners active at the intersection of religion and international affairs. CIRIS’s role as the secretariat for the TPNRD is supported by a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.


The TPNRD with the Archbishop of Finland, Kari Mäkinen.


CIRIS Research Associate Edits Special Journal Issue on Religion and Violence

2 May 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Matthew Rowley recently edited a collection of essays for the journal Transformation. The special issue, coedited with Dr Emma Wild-Wood, focuses on religion, hermeneutics and violence. Central to each essay is the relationship between readers, texts, and killing. Key questions addressed in the volume include:

  • What causes religious violence? 
  • What is the relationship between beliefs, texts and violence done in the name of God? 
  • How should one respond to historical violence within their own tradition? 
  • How should one respond to acts of violence performed by those in another faith community? 
  • How are harmful beliefs formed and what can be done to prevent believers from doing the unbelievable? 

Rowley contributed two articles to the collection. The co-authored introductory article summarises ‘the state of modern scholarship on key debates concerning religion and violence, [and] encourages the careful study of how individuals or groups in peculiar historical circumstances interact with their sacred texts and beliefs in a way that facilitates violence or oppression’.

Rowley’s second article examines how people come to ‘inhabit’ a particular sacred text and frame their violence through that text. As case studies, the article looks at individual violence (child sacrifice), communal violence (conquest), and eschatologically oriented violence (cosmic war). It ‘examines one common practice among many who believe their killing pleases or is willed by God—inhabiting biblical texts. Focusing on the Abrahamic and Mosaic narratives and on eschatology, [it explains] part of the process whereby individuals and groups come to believe that they are participating in killing patterned on or prophesied in scripture. Finally, this article [suggests] a scripture-based approach aimed at moving an individual or group away from the harmful habitation of sacred texts’.


  1. ‘Religion, Hermeneutics and Violence: An Introduction’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley and Emma Wild-Wood).
  2. ‘The Use of Violent Biblical Texts by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda’ (Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala).
  3. ‘Early Modern Religious Violence and the Dark Side of Church History’ (John Coffey). 
  4. ‘Christian Responses to Islamism and Violence in the Name of Islam’ (Colin Chapman).
  5. ‘Child Sacrifice, Conquest and Cosmic War: On the Harmful Habitation of Biblical Texts’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley).
  6. ‘Christian Hermeneutics and Narratives of War in the Carolingian Empire’ (Robert A.H. Evans).

Sage has made articles 1, 3 and 4 open access.