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Think at Oxford - The Speakers

Think at Oxford 2017

Official Speaker list


Guest speaker – Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini
on “Islamic Feminism, Today and Tomorrow”

N.B. Members living locally can attend this talk on its own, or in combination with a pre-booked meal in the Old Common Room of Balliol College.

The world watched the 1978-79 revolution in Iran with close interest, as an experiment whose results were likely to have a global impact. What people saw going on, however, differed. For some, the revolution was the triumph of a modern, political Islam, the beginning of a new dawn, when God’s law (the Shari‘a) would bring to Muslims the justice and prosperity that secular nation-states had failed to deliver. Others, including many of those who had originally participated in the revolution, saw religious fanatics
attempting to roll back time by creating a despotic theocracy.

The Iranian Revolution certainly changed the landscape of the Muslim world. It inspired the Muslim masses and reinvigorated intellectual debates on the nature and possibilities of an Islamic state. It also gave rise to new voices and forms of women’s activism that have challenged patriarchal interpretations of the Shari‘a from within; a movement that came to be known as ‘Islamic feminism’. I shall explore the movement’s potential and promise for changing the terms of debates over Islam and gender, with reference to
Musawah (, a global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.

Dr. Ziba Mir-Hosseini ( is a legal anthropologist, specializing in Islamic law, gender and development, and a founding member of the Musawah Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family ( Currently
a Professorial Research Associate at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, University of London, she has held numerous research fellowships and visiting professorships. She has published books on Islamic family law in Iran and Morocco, Iranian clerical discourses on gender, Islamic reformist thinkers, and the revival of zina laws. She has also co-directed two award-winning feature-length documentary films on Iran: Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001). Her latest books are Gender and
Equality in Muslim Family Law: Justice and Ethics in the Islamic Legal Tradition, edited with Lena Larsen, Christian Moe and Kari Vogt (I.B.Tauris, 2013); Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, edited with Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana
Rumminger (Oneworld, 2015). In 2015 she received the American Academy of Religion’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.

Knowledge & Belief – Keith Jones
Directed belief (i.e. this is what you will believe or else something dreadful will happen to you) can be seen as acting as a primary driver and means of social control for centuries. In this context, belief is principally referring to religious belief, but it can include societal rules and customs – so often derived from the prevailing religious doctrines. What we have seen in recent decades is a developing struggle which changes the nature of conflicting beliefs from "my belief being better than yours" to being “all belief is dangerous” because it justifies whatever action the belief system permits. Knowledge, in the modern sense as the outcome of the scientific method, by contrast is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately. But, what is the place for such knowledge in relation to these belief systems? In this talk I will explore ideas around the different understanding of what the two words might mean, and perhaps whether knowledge may too succumb to the same justification for action.

Bioethics: Medical Advances Challenge Moral Certainties – Graham Kyle
The Seventies was a decade of technological advances in Medicine, bringing to reality life-enhancing procedures which had previously only been dreamt about. Louise Brown, the first 'test-tube baby', was born; and the first successful kidney transplant from a cadaveric donor was performed, offering hope to thousands. The old 'moral certainties' were challenged by these advances. We will look at the difficulties they raised, as well as how the new moral dilemmas were responded to, exploring the extent to which they have been dealt with, or have yet to be resolved. The discussions on these, and other similar, topics led to a new word being coined: "Bioethics", which may, or may not, imply a fresh approach to thinking about such matters. Even though some of the issues are no longer generally regarded as challenging, they have given way to others which have arisen to replace them.

Sex & Death: Law and Medical Ethics – Barbara Harrison
Abortion, euthanasia, consent to treatment and medical negligence are just some aspects of medical practice that provoke heated argument: it is the courts that decide the legal way forward where conflicts arise or uncertainty reigns. In this way, the law sets precedents for other cases that will follow. Whilst most major religions have set views on such issues, and are usually ready to assert them as being valid for all, those who consider things from the viewpoint of human rights and individual freedom see such issues as lying within the confines of individual moral action. Starting with early significant cases, we will progress through the 70s to more recent developments. Along the way, we will consider the legal aspects and examine relevant ethical views and considerations. Interspersed with this, you will hear key details of selected cases, and will then be given time to debate the issues before you learn what the courts decided.

Eye Witness Testimony – Mike Griffiths
Over the last few decades, psychological researchers have shown that human memory doesn’t work quite as you might expect. Elizabeth Loftus began work in the 1970s, looking at how memories can be distorted, and what affects those distortions. In the 1990s she started to show that it is possible to create memories that are entirely false. This has caused enormous controversy, particularly since she has shown that false memories can be created via procedures that are very similar to those of therapists who claim to ‘recover’ memories of sexual abuse; memories that such therapists claim were always there but were repressed. Mike will take you through some of the research into human memory, with a particular focus on the work of Prof. Loftus, and will touch on the implications of all this for the criminal justice system.

Rawls & Nozick – John Fender
John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ and Robert Nozick’s ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’, were arguably the most important books on political philosophy published in the 20th Century. Yet they present radically different conceptions of a just society and of the role of the state. Rawls envisages a procedure, based on what rational agents would do in the so-called ‘initial position,’ for choosing the principles of justice. There are two principles of justice derived, the more famous of which is the ‘difference principle’, according to which inequalities are only justified if they benefit the least well-off. On the other hand, Nozick argues that nothing more than a ‘minimal state’ can be justified, where the functions of the state are limited to the enforcement of contracts and protection against force, theft and fraud. Any more extensive role for the state would violate peoples’ rights, which is unacceptable. In this talk, I shall outline and discuss both thinkers’ views, and also mention some more recent contributions. Clearly, coming to an overall assessment of these important and complex books is a formidable task; this talk will attempt the more limited task of attempting to shed at least some light on what, after more than forty years, we might have learned about the topics they discuss.

1970s Politics and the Power of Persuasion – Austin Caffrey
In the seventies, there were three TV channels, a handful of newspapers and no internet. So how did political parties engage with the electorate to get their message across? They really needed to in this decade, which included four general elections and three changes of government. In the last election of 1979, Margaret Thatcher swept to power with possibly one of the most effective and evocative campaign slogans, “Labour Isn't Working”, launched at a time when 1.4 million Britons were unemployed. In this talk I will take a look at the art of persuasion, not just in how politicians and their advisers approached this in the 1970s, but also how this art plays out in recent times of general elections and referendums.

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