Beyond the headlines of Britain's controversial 'Muslim survey'

Beyond the headlines of Britain's controversial 'Muslim survey'
Blog: British tabloids and broadsheets alike failed to thoroughly study the survey's results and simply published agenda-driven rubbish about conspiracy theories, writes Jamil Hussein.
6 min read
08 Dec, 2016
The report shows Muslims have an overwhelming sense of belonging to Britain [Getty]

The recent survey into Britain's Muslim communities by right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange threw up some positive findings.

But rather than look at those aspects of the report that show Muslims in a good light, many in the British media led with the issues the think-tank analysts themselves felt were "deeply troubling".

"Only one in 25 British Muslims believe Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 terror attack and believe 'wild and outlandish conspiracy theories' - but 93 percent say they love the UK," said the Mail Online.

Meanwhile, the Guardian went with: "Britain's Muslim communities have 'separatist' tendencies and a 'deeply worrying' belief in conspiracy theories, according to one of the government's favourite centre-right think-tanks."

When you read the report, you can see why even a nuanced left-leaning newspaper like the Guardian led with a negative narrative.

Labour MP Khalid Mahmood wrote the foreword in the report. Mahmood glanced past the positive findings to indulge himself with issues Policy Exchange found worrying.

Conspiracy theories

Much of Mahmood's foreword concentrated on Muslims' reported belief in "wild and outlandish" conspiracy theories.

The report shows that 31 percent of the Muslims polled believed the US government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Shorn of context, the response does seem abnormal.

But, sadly, believing in conspiracy theories is very normal these days. Last year, a survey by Chapman University in California found 50 percent of Americans believed in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

As well as the Muslim survey, Policy Exchange undertook a "control survey" to reflect attitudes of the population as a whole. On the broader question of whether they believe conspiracy theories contain "elements of truth", the control group's response (37 percent agreeing) was not much different from the Muslim group (40 percent).

It shows conspiracy theories are not just a Muslim problem.

We have seen the rise of populist figures such as Donald Trump on the back of the current trend in "fake news". The president-elect even perpetuated a number of conspiracies himself, including surounding Barack Obama's birth certificate.

Many that support Trump's Republican party ludicrously believe Obama is a Muslim - an astonishing 43 percent.

Even this week, "Pizzagate" has shown how dangerous these conspiracy theories can be. 

So, to suggest conspiracy theories are uniquely a Muslim issue is peculiar. It is not Muslim conspiracy theories that have played a role in the seismic political changes we have seen this year - including Brexit and Trump.

Who speaks for Muslims?

Another issue that Mahmood highlights is the assertion that Muslim organisations in the UK have little support among the wider community.

The report shows only 20 percent would go through a Muslim organisation if they wanted to engage local or government officials. But mainstream political parties struggle here too; only two percent more said they would join a party to engage with officials.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) comes under particular scrutiny, with the report concluding the organisation has minimal support. The MCB responded by questioning Policy Exchange's right-wing agenda, saying the think-tank's work in the past had provided "ample fodder to countless headlines demonising Muslims". 

In other words, the community feels Muslim organisations and religious institutions have more in common with them than MPs such as Khalid Mahmood

There are, however, caveats on the conclusion that these organisations have little traction in the community.

When asked whether Muslim organisations should express views on economic and social issues in the name of the wider Muslim community, 54 percent agreed they should, with only 13 percent opposing.

Moreover, 71 percent agreed their local mosque represented their views. In contrast, only 43 percent said their MP represented them. Delving deeper, you find 33 percent "strongly agree" their local mosque represents them, versus a lowly nine percent for their local MP. In other words, the community feels Muslim organisations and religious institutions have more in common with them than MPs such as Khalid Mahmood.

It would have been interesting to see whether organisations that have influenced policy affecting the daily lives of Muslims have any traction in the community. Alas, that question was not asked.

Extremism and counter-terrorism

Of all the sensationalist titles in the UK media, one was missing: "Wider British public twice as likely to support 'terrorist actions' than British Muslims."

But leaving the tabloid hyperbole to one side, the survey does provide some fascinating, myth-busting stats.

The UK population as a whole is more likely to sympathise with "terrorist actions" (four percent) than British Muslims are (two percent). And Muslims are more likely to condemn acts of political violence than the public at large - 90 percent versus 84 percent.

From the various answers received, the report concluded "there is no single explanation" for radicalisation. The answers though, however, suggest more weighting towards political and socio-economic reasons, especially for those who sympathised with violent actions.

Interestingly the report said "religious devotion and social conservatism do not correlate to political radicalism". In fact, the survey found "those who rated themselves less religious were relatively more likely to express sympathy for criminal, violent or terrorist acts". An interesting finding, given that many, particularly in the media, have peddled the view that being a conservative or devout Muslim leads to radicalisation.

On the issue of counter-radicalisation, the report suggested that Muslims were "comfortable with state-led intervention".

"Attempts to portray government policies - such as those associated with the Prevent agenda - as anti-Muslim initiatives rejected by the whole community, wildly misrepresent the views of British Muslims."

Bearing in mind that Prevent has recently come under heavy criticism, a direct question about the controversial programme would have been more enlightening. Instead, the report leaps to its conclusion on the basis that 29 percent believed the government should take "primary responsibility" for deterring radicalisation.

But even critics of Prevent insist that government involvement is needed. Rather, the primary criticism of Prevent is that it is a top-down scheme that ignores the concerns of the Muslim community.

The most popular answer for that question was Muslims believed they themselves should take more responsibility to prevent radicalisation (38 percent). The answer suggests that an effective counter-radicalisation programme would see the government work collaboratively with the willing Muslim community - precisely what many Prevent critics are arguing.

The good bits

Now, the parts of the report that failed to get headlines.

There were many positives from the survey; some even portraying the Muslim community in a much better light than the wider population.

- 72 percent of the Muslims polled voted in an election in the last 12 months, compared with 54 percent of the general population surveyed.
- 33 percent used local leisure and fitness activities versus 8 percent of the wider public.
- 23 percent raised money for a local charity, compared to just four percent of the general public.
- 18 percent participated in a community event, against four percent.
- 17 percent had visited a museum, gallery or concert, compared with 11 percent
- 10 percent volunteered at a local school, or other care-based institution, versus four percent in the wider population.

So, the data from the survey shows Muslims are among the most active and engaged members of British society. There are problems the community is grappling with, and Muslims themselves recognise they need to do more on certain issues, such as radicalisation.

But the report shows Muslims have an overwhelming sense of belonging to Britain, are more likely to condemn acts of political violence - and see the value of engaging socially, culturally and politically with the wider community.

Follow Jamil Hussein on Twitter: @jam1lH