Since 9/11, and particularly following the suicide bombings in London on July 7 2005, public perceptions of British Muslims have become increasingly negative. Among the prevalent images of Britain’s 1.6mn to 2mn Muslims is that they sympathize with extremism and in some cases even with Al-Qaeda, are disloyal to British values, refuse to integrate, feel victimized, repress women, mistrust the police, and want to turn Britain into a Shariah state.
There is no denying that there is a terror threat from a small number of Muslims in Britain, as was shown on 7/7 and by the attempted bombings of the London transport system two weeks later. Six young Muslim men are currently standing trial at Woolwich Crown Court in London for those attempted explosions, and three men were recently arrested and charged in relation to the 7/7 attacks. The head of intelligence service MI5, Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, has said that MI5 is tracking around 30 terror plots in relation to which it has 1,600 people under surveillance.
The Muslim community has paid a heavy price for the violent activities of a few. After an alleged plot to blow up aircraft flying from Britain to the US was uncovered last summer, the government markedly toughened its stand towards the community. It declared that multiculturalism was a mistake and is adopting measures intended to enforce integration, “moderation” and the diffusion of “British values”. The media has over the past six months run many negative and often unfair stories about Muslims, with sensational headlines.
Now one of the world’s most respected polling organizations, Gallup, has published the results of an opinion poll which gives a more reassuring picture of British Muslims, at least in London, and which overturns some of the public perceptions. It is markedly more upbeat in tone than some of the alarming polls published since 9/11 in various newspapers.
The poll challenges the often stated view that Muslims must choose between Islam and Britain. It indicates that a strong identification with one’s religion and with one’s nationality are not mutually exclusive. A majority of London Muslims strongly identify with their faith (69 per cent) and most (88 per cent) say religion is an important part of their lives (compared with only 36 per cent of the general public). But a majority (57 per cent) also strongly identify with Britain, which is more than the 48 per cent of the general public which does so.
In its presentation of the poll results Gallup stresses that Muslims’ comparatively strong identification with their religion should not be taken as evidence of radicalization. London Muslims are almost as likely as the general public to condemn terrorist attacks on civilians (88 per cent), and are more likely than the general public (81 per cent against 72 per cent) to find no moral justification for using violence for a “noble cause”.
Muslims are also more likely than the general public to express confidence in the police (78 per cent as against 69 per cent). This is surprising given the tension over the wrongful arrests of Muslims such as those in the Forest Gate area of East London last year. Compared with the general public, Muslims also have appreciably more confidence in the national government (64 per cent versus 36 per cent), the judicial system (67 per cent versus 55 per cent) and elections (73 per cent against 60 per cent).
The Labour Muslim MP Shahid Malik (above) chaired a press conference held a few days ago at Gallup’s London headquarters to mark the release of the results. He said they were “incredibly encouraging” and “very welcome”, but added “there are some challenges there as well.”
Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, presented the results. (She is co-author with John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, of the forthcoming book “Who Speaks for Islam? Listening to the Voices of a Billion Muslims.”)
Mogahed explained that in 2005 the Gallup organization launched the largest social science research project in history, the Gallup World Poll. It is polling a representative sample of 6.5 billion people, or 95 per cent of the world’s population, in 130 countries. This study is completely independent and self-funded.
In addition to the core questions addressed to each person questioned in the World Poll, there are regionally specific questions. In 40 predominantly Muslim countries these relate to issues such as the preferred form of government, the role of women and views of the West. This year the study has branched out into minority Muslim populations in the West, focusing on London, Berlin and Paris. In London the researchers interviewed 500 Muslims aged 15 years and over. The comparison polling of the general public was carried out through random telephone dialing of 1200 British residents.
The poll reveals some major differences between Muslims and the general public, especially in the field of religious and social values. Only 13 per cent of Muslims consider the removal of the face veil (niqab) to be necessary for integration, while 55 per cent of the general public think it is essential. (The niqab is actually only worn by a small percentage of British Muslim women). And while 66 per cent of the public think that homosexual acts are morally acceptable, only 4 per cent of Muslims share this view. Just 10 per cent of Muslims think abortion is acceptable, compared with 58 per cent of the public. A much higher proportion of Muslims than members of the general public think that suicide, viewing pornography, having an affair or having sex outside marriage are morally wrong. As regards honor killings, 1 per cent of the public but 3 per cent of Muslims think they are morally acceptable.
There is a widespread perception, shared by some politicians, that Muslims are segregationists who only want to live in Muslim areas. But the poll found that just a quarter of London Muslims prefer to live in a neighborhood made up mostly of people who share their religious or ethnic backgrounds. This is substantially lower than the 35 per cent of the general public.
One criticism often leveled at Muslim immigrants is that they fail to learn English; the poll finds that nearly 80 per cent of Muslims think it necessary for minorities to master the language in order to integrate into British society, compared with 89 per cent of the general public. Sixty six per cent of Muslims also think it is necessary to participate in politics in order to integrate, virtually the same percentage as among the general public.
In terms of being “involved citizens”, measured by donating money or money to an organization, helping a stranger who needs help, or voicing opinion to a public official, Muslims are more “involved” than the general public at 27 per cent compared with 22 per cent.
The poll highlights the way in which Muslims feel discriminated against. Twenty eight per cent of London Muslims say they have suffered racial or religious discrimination in the previous year, double the figure for the public in general. And only 68 per cent say they were treated with respect all day the day before they were questioned by Gallup, compared with 90 cent of the general public. They were less likely than members of the general public to feel they have the opportunity to do their best, at 69 per cent as opposed to 78 per cent.
Ninety-six per cent of London Muslims consider that life has purpose, substantially more than the figure of 79 per cent for the general population. And 55 per cent of Muslims say they learnt or did something useful the previous day, compared with 49 per cent of the public. Gallup warns: “The relative lag in opportunity coupled with the high sense of ability and purpose, could translate into frustration and social unrest. It also suggests a waste of potential”.
The poll identifies some big gaps between how Muslims perceive themselves and how the general population sees them. Thus 74 per cent of London Muslims consider that British Muslims are loyal to the UK, and 82 per cent say Muslims are respectful of other religions. But only 45 per cent of the public think British Muslims are loyal to the nation, and only 55 per cent say they are respectful of other religions.
Media coverage has played a major role in building up the negative images of Muslims. Gallup points to the finding of the media research institute Media Tenor that from December 2006 to January 2007 Islam was covered in UK TV news more than any other religion, and that the coverage was almost 10 times more negative than positive
The methodology and findings of the Gallup poll could be open to question. For example, it does not explore the impact of foreign policy issues such as the Iraq war and Palestine in radicalizing the views of British Muslims, particularly the youth. Nor is there a breakdown of attitudes in terms of age. A few months ago the Policy Exchange think tank published a report on ‘British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism’ entitled “Living Apart Together”. That report drew attention to a conflict within British Islam between “a moderate majority that accepts the norms of democracy and a growing minority that does not.”
There has already been one effort to undermine the Gallup poll findings. In an article for the website of the ardently pro-Israeli pro-Iraq war US-based organization Campus Watch (a brainchild of neoconservative Daniel Pipes), David Conway of the Centre for Social Cohesion tried to rubbish the positive Times newspaper coverage of the poll, which was headlined “Poll of Muslims in London shows hidden face of a model citizenry.” The article seeks to undermine the Gallup project through its link with John Esposito, but then Esposito has long been a target of Campus Watch in its politically-inspired campaign against certain American academics.
Saudi Gazette, 23rd April 2007