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Over a month ago, a group of Muslim parents protested for several days at Batley grammar school, in West Yorkshire, England, after a teacher at that school showed in a Religion Education class the 2015 caricature of the Prophet Muhammad by Charlie Hebdo. The teacher apparently showed that picture to his students, who were between 13 to 14 years old, to educate them about islamophobia. Nevertheless, even before an independent inquiry into the incident started, the head teacher's response was to issue an "unequivocal" apology for the teacher's actions and suspend the teacher. (To know more about this incident, please click here.)

If a university professor/researcher in the UK showed the same image in, say, history or moral philosophy class, to stimulate an intellectual discussion between mature students, would the university tolerate it? And, has this (or at least something similar to this) ever happened in a UK university class? How did it go?

I ask these questions because I'm planning to do my PhD in the UK, and my proposed research topic touches on the said issue.

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  • my proposed research topic touches on the said issue Vote to close as off-topic. – scaaahu Apr 29 at 13:39
  • This is quite dangerous. Images of The Prophet are inherently insulting to believers. They don't make images themselves and treat it as an offense when others do it. It is very hard to do such things in a "context" that respects cultural sensibilities. – Buffy Apr 29 at 14:15
  • There are far better ways to educate people about Islamophobia than showing images which are completely offensive to Muslim people, especially when there's a fair chance that many of the students in the class are themselves Muslim. – astronat Apr 29 at 14:52
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    If the audience comprises 13-14 year old children, one wonders whether the instructor does this for his or her own personal gratification-by-shock. Who knows. To me the bigger concern is the verbal narrative he or she provides the youngsters whilst introducing and explaining the images. – A rural reader Apr 29 at 16:18
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Generally speaking, Universities in the UK can exercise their own judgement on how to organise their curriculum and how to deal with sensitive matters while encouraging academic debate and educated discussion. There is no single answer which is valid for each and every University in the UK, as customs and approaches differ from one place to another.

Typically, every University will have a quality assurance process for their teaching and research. Within it, they will have Ethical Panels/Officers responsible for deciding whether a proposed research / education module is ethical and safe. If you feel that your research can be controversial and/or cause ethical issues and/or make you or others feel unsafe, you need to contact the designated people and discuss with them whether and how to proceed. Normally, they will assess the risks and suggest appropriate measures to ensure that your program of research is legal, safe and ethical.

If you don't contact the designated Panels/Officers, and proceed with your potentially unsafe/unethical research, the University will not be happy. After all, they put all these systems in place for a reason and expect all academics to make use of them when necessary.

Note that all the above has very little to do with the exact reason why your research may be considered unethical/unsafe/inappropriate. The approach remains the same, whether the potential issues are caused by use of human biological materials, by research requiring access to children, by research involving toxic materials, or by research on social/religious issues. Anything that is potentially unsafe or problematic should be discussed with appropriate people first, before the activity starts. As long as you agree to that, you will likely have no issues doing your research in the UK.

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In addition to @DimitrySavostyanov's excellent answer, I'll just add my thoughts on what is likely would be considered reasonable and what not at places I have worked.

Firstly, is showing these images strictly necessary? If your aim is to "stimulate discussion" are there other ways to do so that would upset fewer people? Remember that an upset person is unlikely to be able to contribute at their highest intellectual level. If you wish to have a discussion of censorship and religious sensitivities, it seems to me that mature scholars should be able to have the discussion without having to be provoked by the image. We can all have a discussion about whether pedophilia is a moral failing or a mental illness without having to be shown pornographic images for example.

But sometimes it is necessary to see material to be able to have a discussion, be that disturbing images or first hand accounts of upsetting incidents. The material is there because there is no other way of understanding the content.

The distinction between these is a fine line and one must proceed with care and humility, and remember that your purpose is always to work in the interests of a student's education. A distressed student will not be learning, even if you believe that they shouldn't be distressed. There is no point in trying to teach in a particular way because you believe it is how students should learn, there is only how students do learn.

Finally, there is a big difference between what your research is and what your teaching will be, and the two are unlikely to be as related as perhaps your post suggests you think they might be.

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