Researcher Resource: Evaluating the place of polling British Muslims

In April 2016, Trevor Phillips headed a Channel 4 programme, ‘What British Muslims Really Think’, which used a poll and interviews to explore ‘a rigorous survey of the views of British Muslims on issues from gender equality and homosexuality to sympathy for violence and terrorism’.

You can read more here:

The programme brought about a range of lively and sometimes heated responses. Revisiting this episode some months later, and anticipating that similar polls and programmes will arise in the future, we thought it worthwhile to compile six of them as a resource for assisting public discussion around the possibilities and problems of polling British Muslims.

Asma Mustafa
Absent evidence: On ‘What Muslims Really Think’
Sample section (full text available via the link above): ‘Trevor Philips’ article serves to wave a bright red paintbrush in the air and paints all 3 million British Muslims with the very same brush. I had warned against treating British Muslims as a standardised group in my book. In the very way that this survey does, it ignores the rich variation that exists among British Muslims, similar to the diversity that exists among Christians and Jews “Though British Muslims are mainly of South Asian descent, the South Asian culture is not representative of Islam itself. In essentialising Islam this way, we would be ignoring the wide variety of cultural, linguistic, historical and religious variations found among Muslims worldwide”. Others have already commented onthe effect of the sampling frame used, so I’m going to focus on other issues.

The title of the documentary and article suggest concern with what Muslims are thinking (as though their thoughts are treacherously hidden away from the wider public). When large-scale surveys such as the British Social Attitudes design their surveys, a wide array of relevant subjects are examined, so why could this survey not have included less stereotypical questions about what Muslims care about?’

Tahir Abbas
Speaker’s Corner: Prof Tahir Abbas “What Too Many Believe About Muslims But Shouldn’t”
The reality is that segregation is not a choice, but the result of a lack of choice based on social immobility, disadvantage, and direct and indirect racism that has manifested itself generation upon generation. This is especially so in parts of towns and cities experiencing severe economic decline and transformation in the light of deindustrialisation and globalisation. To emphasise ‘community cohesion’, which was a particular bother for Ted Cantle for over a decade, is questionable. The concept, now thoroughly debunked, fixated on community characteristics, taking attention away from structural disadvantage. By Phillips alluding to this discredited cultural values thesis, there is a play into a neoliberal agenda that wholeheartedly ignores the wider workings of society.

Bridget Byrne and James Nazroo
Misleading, irresponsible and dangerous; why Phillips and co should apologise for ‘What British Muslims Really Think’
‘There have been a number of surveys that have included as large, or larger, samples of Muslim people in Britain over the past decade, which have been well designed and provided good evidence on people’s experiences and attitudes. These include Understanding Society, the Ethnic Minority British Electoral Survey and the Citizenship Survey. In terms of size, the survey they use is by no means unique. However, it is unique in having three fundamental flaws in its design, any of which would lead to serious errors. The conclusions drawn from this evidence are misleading, irresponsible and dangerous.’

Sunder Katwala
British Muslims aren’t foreign invaders. They are building a liberal, home-grown faith
‘The Channel 4 poll presents a mixed picture of integration. People will be worried that almost a quarter of those surveyed would like to see Sharia law implemented. Clearly, that isn’t going to happen – the rule of law depends fundamentally on one law for all. And put another way, more than three-quarters of British Mulsims don’t want sharia.

Trevor Phillips, who hosts the new documentary, warns that it is “patronising” to assume that Muslim immigrants will become “like us”: that the British story of integration will be replicated with the British Muslim community just because the Irish, the Jews, the Sikhs and the Hindus made it. He’s right that nothing is preordained, in either direction. Complacency is not an option. But suggesting there is a “growing chasm” across the generations is too pessimistic.’

Abdul-Azim Ahmed
6 Things Wrong With Trevor Phillips Latest Crusade
‘Polls, ultimately, can’t actually reveal that much about controversial issues. Dr Maria Sobolewska, an academic specialising in the area, argues that she “can say with certainty that public opinion polls have no value for estimating the number of prospective and likely extremists and terrorists.” The reason being that Muslims’ responses to questions about controversial issues (in her case, extremism) were “mostly an artefact of what they get asked and that the non-Muslims answer similar questions in a similar fashion”. Mend published a well researched rebuttal to Trevor’s ICM survey showing exactly that. In particular, they quote from Dr Linda Woodhead’s research on attitudes amongst religious groups to show that Muslims are not so much different from Christians in terms of their social attitudes, though sometimes more conservative.’

Steve Rose
What do Muslims in Britain actually think
‘Phillips stated that: “What we also found is that there is a correspondence between this desire to live separately and sympathy for terrorism. People who want to live separately are about twice as likely to say that they have sympathy for terrorist acts.” Yet the data reveals that just 40 people expressed sympathy for terrorist acts. Nor was there any effort to extrapolate the meaning from a vague term, as sympathy does not always mean endorsement. Phillips is overstating the opinions of a tiny proportion in the data set.

That rhetoric can also suggest that religiosity and support for terrorism are somehow linked, a point that misunderstands the nature of radicalisation.

ICM asked some wide-ranging, probing and sensationalistic questions; but to suggest it captures the breadth of Muslim opinion is not quite accurate. Yes, some issues to address but the real conversations must happen beyond this poll.’