Are British Muslims really “a nation within a nation”?
Categories: Latest News
Sunday April 10 2016
The Sunday Times (£) front page today boasts a feature story in the magazine supplement titled, What do British Muslims really think?
The ‘really’ bit is a novel take on polls conducted about British Muslim attitudes to date suggesting perhaps that past polls have failed to uncover what the faith group ‘really’ thinks until now.
Indeed, in explaining the methodology employed by ICM in conducting the poll, author Trevor Phillips states the polling agency “wanted to avoid the perils of “code-switching”: the all-too-human minority impulse to fit in, to shape your response to meet the expectations of the majority population and to disguise the answer that you think will be too disturbing for people from a different culture to hear. The ICM methodology makes this probably the most revealing inquiry into Muslim opinion yet conducted in this country.”
It is difficult to offer a fulsome review of the survey because the data has not yet been released. But, in The Sunday Times today, Phillips offers an insight into the results which pollsters argue show there to be ““a chasm” opening between Muslims and non-Muslims on such fundamentals as marriage, relations between men and women, schooling, freedom of expression and even the validity of violence in defence of religion.”
It is not possible to delineate the nature and depth of this “chasm” because the Sunday Times article does not reveal anything of the results of polling responses drawn from the ‘control group’ in the general population, limiting itself only to the responses offered by Muslims to various questions.
There are, however, a number of omissions in Phillips’ evaluation of the poll results as presented in the Sunday Times today which are worth reflecting on in the context of the claim advanced that “the integration of Muslims will probably be the hardest task we’ve ever faced.”
There are the usual issues that are highlighted as illustrating the gap between Muslims and others for example, on issues of morality.
Phillips explains, “More than half of the sample reported that they believe that homosexuality should be illegal. Even more opposed gay marriage, and nearly half thought that it was unacceptable for a gay person to teach their children.”
We’re not told the responses from the control group so there is no way of comparing and contrasting.
But previous polls which have reflected on attitudes towards homosexuality among the faithful would suggest Muslims are not alone in holding conservative views about same sex marriage.
A poll by Professor Linda Woodhead in 2013 found views on homosexuality correlated positively to those who “believe in God with certainty” and those who “take authority from religious sources.” According to the 2013 poll, Baptists and Muslims were the most likely to answer ‘no’ to the question, “Do you think same-sex couples should or should not be allowed to get married?” which Woodhead argues, “can be explained by the higher proportions of those who believe in God with certainty and take authority from religious sources amongst Baptists and Muslims.”
Consider the poll by ComRes for Premier Christian Radio ahead of the last election in which 35% agreed with the statement “I would have considered voting Conservative but gay marriage has put me off doing so.” It would seem Muslims are not alone in wearing their religious faith on their sleeve.
Moreover, a YouGov poll in January 2016 revealed a greater proportion of Evangelical Christians than Muslims saying same sex marriage was “wrong”, 63% to 52%, and among all faith groups, Muslims were the most likely to answer “unsure” (34%) suggesting that views on homosexuality are not black and white or entrenched.
On freedom of expression, another area in which Phillips claims a “chasm” has opened up, consider the results from Gallup polls which show that “a majority of Britons (57%) and a plurality of the French (45%) say that newspapers printing a picture of the Prophet Muhammad should not be allowed under protection of free speech, while 35% and 40%, respectively, say it should be allowed. Britons and the French are even stronger in their disapproval of other expressions potentially covered by free speech: More than 75% of both populations say that a cartoon making light of the Holocaust should not be allowed under protection of free speech, and roughly 86% of the British and French public say the same about newspapers printing racial slurs. Clearly, for many European citizens, free speech is nuanced and contextual, not a black and white absolute.”
On polygamy, Phillips observes, “One in three British Muslims supports the right of a man to have more than one wife, even though it is illegal in the UK. While the support for such a policy is strongest among older Muslims, they are nearly matched in their enthusiasm for polygamy by young Muslims aged 18 to 24.”
What the polling fails to take into consideration and what is entirely absent from Phillips’ analysis of the results is why polygamy may be more attractive to Muslims. In her research on Muslims’ personal relationships, Dr Fauzia Ahmed explains the choices facing young Muslim women who opt for a polygamous relationship: “Many educated British Muslim women are experiencing difficulties finding suitable matrimonial matches. For some, the prospect of sharing a ‘quality’ husband is preferable to remaining single.”
Polygamy may, for some, be a response to pressing social need and not, as Phillip suggests indicative of “antediluvian” views about women among Muslims.
Phillips goes on to reveal, “A quarter supported the introduction of sharia law in parts of the UK — presumably those areas where they thought Muslims constitute a majority — instead of the common statute laid down by parliament. Allah’s law, apparently, need take no heed of democracy.”
The fact that a former Lord Chief Justice and Archbishop of Canterbury have also espoused views on the likely introduction of aspects of shari’ah law in the UK is glossed over and the poll results presented to reinforce the article key claim that Muslims are living as a “nation within a nation”.
Given the legal status of shari’ah councils in the UK, under the Arbitration Act and analogous to the status of Jewish Beth Din courts, it is tendentious to report Muslim preferences for shari’ah in a manner devoid of the wider social and legal context. As Anjum Anwar states: “What I eat is according to my sharia, how I pray is according to my sharia, how I dress is according to my sharia, how I treat the stranger and family members is according to sharia. I think people misunderstand the concept of sharia law. Their only thinking is, uh-oh, once you’ve got the sharia you’ll be chopping heads off and hands off. That is not the case.”
But Phillips goes on to argue that the poll results should inform our response to shari’ah councils, “halting the[ir] growth and placing them under regulation, even perhaps insisting that they sit in public.”
It would be interesting to see whether he supports the same prescription in relation to Beth Din courts.
Phillips opines the low level of intermarriage among Muslims and non-Muslims Britons stating, “fewer than one in 10 Muslim Britons of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage are in inter-ethnic relationships. (Whereas more than four in 10 African-Caribbeans are in a mixed relationship.)”
And yet, research by Ingrid Strom from Manchester University reveals, using data from the British Social Attitudes survey, that attitudes among White respondents who ‘mind’ if a close relative marries someone of Asian or West Indian background has declined from over 50 per cent in 1989 to 25 per cent in 2013, but those who ‘mind’ if a close relative marries a person of Muslim background is almost double this, at near 50 per cent.
If we are to investigate low levels of intermarriage, surely among variables to be studied as an explanatory factor is the prejudice against Muslims among the general population?
Phillips refers to the issue of “parallel lives” and the low level of social interaction among Muslims and those from other faith and social backgrounds: “According to ICM, more than half [of Muslims] mix with non-Muslims daily, probably at work or college — but 30% never translate that into a friendship that would take them into a non-Muslim’s house more than once a year. One in five never enter a non-Muslim home.”
If we look at the results of a much larger survey conducted by YouGov for Islamic Relief last June, 39% of people asked “Which, if any, of the following statements apply to you in relation to your own personal experience of British Muslims and other Muslims living in the UK” answered, “I have never had close contact with Muslims.”
It is clear more effort needs to be made and to their credit, Muslim groups have introduced initiatives such as ‘Visit My Mosque’ day and mosque Open Days. Might these efforts made by Muslims to improve social interactions register and similar aim be taken at efforts from other groups to address why 39% of people polled can still claim “never [to have] had close contact with Muslims”?
No doubt the polling will gather considerable coverage in days to come as commentators pore over yet more ‘evidence’ of Islam’s alleged incompatibility with British values.
As we await the full poll results, a couple of observations on The Sunday Times’ preview:
A poll by YouGov in June 2015 found that Muslims and Roma groups were the “least tolerated” minorities in Europe. One might ask what contribution articles such as that in today’s Sunday Times makes to misconceptions about Muslims and Islam’s compatibility with British life.
Secondly, we’ve visited the issue of bad polling only recently with The Sun newspaper forced to admit that its representation of the Survation poll about British Muslims’ “sympathy for jihadis” was “significantly misleading.”
What this, and research by Maria Sobolewska reveals is the dangers of contributing to the manufacturing of a “chasm” between British Muslims and the rest of society by polling that sells a story, rather than tells a story. And this is all the more remarkable coming from Trevor Phillips who in 2011, in another Sunday paper, The Sunday Telegraph, argued that “Muslim communities in this country are doing their damnedest to try to come to terms with their neighbours to try to integrate and they’re doing their best to try to develop an idea of Islam that is compatible with living in a modern liberal democracy.
“One of the aspects of that is essentially saying ‘whatever we feel about matter of sexuality we’re going to have to deal with the fact that most of our neighbours, most of our children’s friends, most of our work mates have a broader, more liberal view and we just have to live with that’.”
The ICM poll coincides with a Channel 4 programme, What British Muslims Really Think at 10pm on Wednesday 13 April.