This Wednesday, Channel 4 in Britain will broadcast a Trevor Phillips documentary on ‘What British Muslims really think’. On Sunday, the Sunday Times published details of an ICM poll about Muslim attitudes commissioned for the programme and ran an essay by Phillips on Muslim integration. The headlines generated by the poll – ‘Half of British Muslims want gay sex banned says poll’; ‘Most Muslims would not give terror tip-offs’, etc – and Phillip’s argument (‘the integration of Muslims will probably be the hardest task we’ve ever faced’) have combined to generate considerable debate and controversy over the last few days. I will hopefully write properly soon on the poll, the programme and Phillips’ argument. In the meantime some initial thoughts:
This is not the first poll to have shown the social conservatism of British Muslims. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, for instance, conducted a series of surveys with YouGov on religion, politics and social and personal morality, the results of which were published in 2013. I wrote briefly about the findings at the time. The poll showed that religious believers were more liberal on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and assisted dying than usually recognized in public debates. The key exception, however, were Muslims, whom the poll found to be more socially conservative than most other religious groups.
But that was not the whole story of the poll. It also found that Muslims were more polarized on many social issues than other groups. For example on abortion, 20 per cent of Muslims wanted to ban abortion altogether, a much higher figure than the general population, and higher than any other religious group. At the same time, 12 per cent of Muslims want to increase the time limit, twice the figure in the general population, and higher than in any other religious group. The ICM/C4 poll also shows some evidence of such polarization, on a range of issues.
Given this polarization, there is a possible methodological issue with the ICM poll. It polled Muslims only in areas where they made up more than 20 per cent of the local population. According to the statistician Martin Boon, this covered 51.4 per cent of the British Muslim population. Those who live in areas of high concentrations of Muslims could well be more socially and religiously conservative than Muslims who live in predominantly non-Muslim areas, and possibly less integrated. That said, the findings of this poll are not that different from previous ones.
The ICM/Channel 4 poll is, as one might imagine, complex in what it reveals, and far more so than the headlines might suggest
On certain social issues – particularly homosexuality – there is considerable illberalism. Just 18% of Muslims think that homosexuality should be legal (compared to 73% of the general population) while 52% disagree. Twenty-eight per cent would be happy to have gay teachers, while 48% would not (the figures for the general public are 75% and 14%). (On the surface, there does seem something odd in more than twice as many Muslims being willing to accept a gay teacher as being willing to accept homosexuality as legal.)
A large proportion of Muslims believe many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Thirty-eight per cent thought ‘Jewish people have too much power in Britain’, 39% that they have too power over the media, and 44% that they have too much power in the business world (the figures for those that disagreed are respectively 20%, 17% and 14%). But when asked about what they thought of Jews personally, the picture changes dramatically. Respondents had to rate their feelings towards Jews on a scale from 0 to 100. The mean scores for Muslims and for the general population were similar (57.1 and 63.7); the mean score for Muslims’ feelings towards Jews (57.1) is little different to the mean score of the feelings of the general population towards Muslims (55.2). If we look at the proportion of the two samples that rated Jews between 0 and 50 (that is, rated them more negatively than positively), it is lower for Muslims than for the general population (39 to 52). By that score there appears to be more antipathy towards Jews within the general population than among Muslims.
Muslims do not appear to see Britain as a nation in thrall to islamophobia. Seventy-three per cent thought that religuious harassment of Muslims was not a problem, 82% had not faced harassment in the past 2 years; and of the 17% who had, more than three-quarters reported it as verbal abuse. More Muslims (40%) think anti-Muslim prejudice has grown in the last five years than think it has decreased (14%). But the comparable figures for the general public are 61% and 7% respectively. Muslims, in other words, actually seem less concerned about the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice than the public at large.
Seven per cent of Muslims supported the idea of a Caliphate, and 3 per cent supported IS (2% of the general population supported a Caliphate, and 1% backed IS). Far fewer Muslims could ‘understand why a British Muslim like Mohammed Emwazi would be attracted to radicalism’ than could members of the general public (13% compared to 27%). The Daily Express, under the headline ‘”Astonishing” two in three British Muslims would not give terror tip-offs’, the Times and many other newspapers, in Britain and abroad,noted that only one in three Muslims would report to the police someone close who might be getting involved in terrorism (the actual figure is 34%). But what the reports failed to note was that a lower proportion of the public at large (30%) would contact the police given the same circumstances. This is, in other words, not a Muslim problem, but a general reluctance to shop friends to the police, however heinous their potential crime.
What is difficult to argue from the figures is, as Trevor Phillips claims, that the social conservatism of Muslims is linked to a lack of integration. When asked ‘How strongly do you feel you belong to Britain?’, 86% of Muslims did compared to 83% of the general population. A higher proportion of the general population (17%) felt little attachment to Britain as compared to Muslims (11%).
Respondents were asked how much integration they desired. Forty-nine per cent of Muslims said they would like ‘to fully integrate with non- Muslims in all aspects of life’, 29% wanted ‘to integrate on most things, but there should be separation in some areas, such as Islamic schooling and laws’, 12% chose ‘to integrate on some things, but I would prefer to lead a separate Islamic life as far as possible’, and 1% wanted a ‘fully separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to Sharia Law and government’. The figures reveal a desire for a degree of separation among half the Muslim population, but not a ‘nation within a nation’, as Phillips claims.
What the poll seems to show, as previous ones have, is a deep well of social conservatism, a more polarized community than one might imagine, and a considerable attachment to Britain and to British identity. It shows issues that need confronting, but not necessarily as the headlines present them.
The Ifop poll found that 68% of observant women never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. Eighty-one per cent accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44% have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38% support the right to abortion, and 31% approve of sex before marriage. The one issue on which French Muslims are deeply conservative is homosexuality: 77% of practising Muslims disapprove.
According to the Pew poll, US Muslims are much more liberals about homosexuality than co-religionists in Europe – 39% thought homosexuality acceptable.
Over the past 25 years, people of most faiths in Britain have become more liberal on issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights. British Muslims, on the other hand, seem to have become more conservative on such social issues. I don’t have any proper data on this, but I speak largely from personal experience. (If any one knows of any proper historical data on this, do let me know; I’d be very interested.)
As I have observed many times, the views of today’s British Muslims are different from those of previous generations. The first generation of Muslims to this country were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the ‘Friday feeling’ took them. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.
The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. Religious organizations were barely visible. The organizations that bound together Asian communities (and we thought of ourselves as ‘Asian’ or ‘black’, not ‘Muslim’) were primarily secular, often political; the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.
It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and ‘Westernised’ than the first generation, is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its ‘difference’.
The differences between attitudes of British, French and US Muslims may be the consequence of a number of factors. One may be the difference in countries of origin and social status of migrants. British Muslims came largely from south Asia. French Muslims came primarily from North Africa and, unlike British Muslims, were largely secular. Even today, the majority do not describe themselves as practicing Muslims. American Muslims tend to be more middle class than those in Britain and France.
A second difference is in social policy, in particular the development of multicultural policies in Britain that have helped create a more fragmented society. The differences in Muslim attitudes in the different countries are likely to have been created by a combination of these two, and possibly other, factors.
Much of the debate around the poll, and Phillips’ own commentary, has confused three issues: social conservatism, integration and jihadism.
We should be rightly concerned with the degree of illiberal social attitudes within Muslim communities, especially as it was very different just a generation ago. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘That’s what happens in a plural society’. We should combat illiberal attitudes, from whichever group, and support those struggling for a progressive future, including within Muslim communities. Too often liberals betray such progressives in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘pluralism’. But holding illiberal views is not necessarily the same as failing to integrate – and this poll does not reveal a link between the two.
We should also be concerned with the more fragmented nature of British society today, with people inhabiting their own identity silos, and with the lack social contact between different groups (some evidence for which is revealed in this poll). We should be concerned, too, with the growth of sectarianism within Muslim communities. There is a good argument to be made that silo-building has helped create the well of social conservatism within Muslim communities, and has encouraged sectarianism. The problem is not so much a lack of integration as the view, promulgated by many politicians and policy makers, that it is through identity groups that such integration should take place. We need to challenge the social and multicultural policies that have, over the past three decades, helped entrench identity politics and encouraged silo-building.
Thirdly, there is the problem of jihadism, and of a section of Muslims being drawn toward Islamist views. As I have noted before, most studies show that Muslims are rarely drawn to jihadist groups because they already hold extremist religious views; rather it is their involvement in jihadism that leads them to accept religious extremism as a justification for their acts. As the former CIA operation officer, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, Marc Sageman, has put it, ‘At the time they joined jihad terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad.’ That is why we need to rethink our ideas about radicalisation and how to combat it.
Illiberalism, integration and jihadism are all urgent issues that need tackling. But we will not tackle any of them by drawing facile links between them.
The images are The Favour by Vaseem Mohammed, and calligraphy by Mohammad Ehsai