Does anybody really think?, pt. 1

I want to take a closer look at the recent Channel 4 programme ‘What British Muslims Really Think’, now described on My4 as “Trevor Phillips presents the results of a rigorous survey of the views of British Muslims.”

To call this survey, or at least this presentation of it, “rigorous”, is overselling it. The language used, in several places, to present the findings is (I think unintentionally) inflammatory. And the description of the methodology leaves me feeling as though there was rather a lot of question-begging going on. What is odd, though, is that the conclusion is, nevertheless, broadly in line with my own sentiments, and so, because of the 45 minute rollercoaster ride to get there, I don’t see how the conclusion follows from the presentation as a whole.

I started writing this piece with the intention of using a quote from a book that looks at neurobiology, ideology, and social change, which seems germane to the problems of integration, but now I will save that for part two. In this first part I will pick through the results, as presented in this documentary, and highlight issues with the methodology, the results, or the presentation thereof. Where applicable I have provided time-stamps for the portion of the documentary that the quote relates to.

After a general introduction to the intent of the documentary, we are advised of some aspects of the methodology used to run the survey that is the basis of it. For example, “ICM decided that the best way to get a fully representative sample of Muslim opinion was to concentrate on areas where at least one fifth of the population is Muslim” (5:11-5:19) and, “ICM interviewed 1081 British Muslim’s face-to-face.” (6:22-6:26). Starting at 8:37 we get our first hint of the results. One third of Muslims think polygamy is acceptable, compared with one tenth of the general public. One-fifth of Muslims (18% actually) think homosexuality should be legal, where as four-fifths of the general public do (it was 73%, actually, and that’s nearer to three quarters, for the purposes of accuracy and clarity). Finally, sympathy for political violence and suicide bombing was 4% in the Muslim population, as compared to 1% in the general population. For a documentary which, in its conclusion talks about integration, to kick off with a very stark ‘Us vs. Them’ presentation of the results seem, well, unhelpful.

Martin Boon, Director of ICM, the company that carried out this research, characterises that 1% of the general population as “no more than a handful.” So here we come to our first bit of lazy, and potentially inflammatory presentation, and from the Director of the Company that carried out the research. The Muslim population, in total, is only 4.8% of the total population, and it is 4% of that population that is sympathetic to political violence and suicide bombing. Much mileage was made of the fact that this was something like 100,000 people, but not much mileage was made out of the fact that it was to “fight injustice” (see image below). The thing is, only 1% of the non-Muslim population has this sympathy, and 0.2% of the total population has this sympathy, and is Muslim. So, as presented, four times as many Muslims as “non-Muslims” have these sympathies, but in the context of broader society five times as many “non-Muslims” as Muslims have these sympathies. That’s why the saying ‘Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics’ was coined. Of the 63.2 million people in the UK (as at the last census, 2011), and based on these percentages, there are around 110,000 Muslims who have these sympathies… and 630,000 or so “non-Muslims” who also do.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 16.07.26.png

It’s not so much that Muslims are being stereotyped as suicide bombers, but that suicide bombers are being stereotyped as Muslim. The documentary tells us that a disturbingly large number of Muslims have “some form of sympathy with violent acts”, which is then ramped up to “…sympathize with Islamist terrorism.” OK. What does “sympathy” mean? Can we determine the difference between “violent acts” and “Islamist Terrorism”? The presentation specifically noted that this sympathy was in response to people fighting injustice, but this key motivation to sympathy is missing from the presentation of the results (indeed I only know about the “injustice” bit because it was on screen (above) – it did not rate a mention in the commentary or narration). I’ll come back to the point about what sympathy means later.

We’re then told that 21% of Muslims have been to the home of a non-Muslim only once in the last year, and that another 21% have never been to a non-Muslim’s home. There is a significant problem with this question, and I will quote the documentary to highlight it: “ICM decided that the best way to get a fully representative sample of Muslim opinion was to concentrate on areas where at least one fifth of the population is Muslim” (5:11-5:19). So, people are more inclined to make friends with people that are more like them when they are in areas where they are spoiled for choice? Shocking! Also, is it the Muslims not visiting the non-Muslims, or is it the non-Muslims not inviting the Muslims? There didn’t appear to be a question about whether non-Muslim’s had visited the homes of Muslims. One of the interviewees, Anjum Anwar makes this point forcefully: “So, if you have a child that goes to a school that is wholly Asian, who lives in an areas that is predominantly Asian… Where would that child meet children and people of other faiths? They’re restricted, aren’t they?”

Trevor Phillips then tells us that, “Equality of women, social tolerance, freedom of expression are now all taken for granted as features of the British way of life” (13:57). By contrast, homosexuality should be illegal, according to 52% of British Muslims, compared to 10% of the general population. In other words 1.35 million Muslims have the same beliefs as around six million non-Muslim Britons. That being said Muslims make up 4.8% of the population, and YouGov estimates that homosexuals make up around 6%.

The next question to be addressed was that of anti-Semitism. 35% of Muslims hold at least some anti-Semitic views, as opposed to 9% of the non-Muslim population – that’s around 900,000 Muslims as against more than five million non-Muslim Britons.

A sizable 39% of British Muslims believe that ‘wives should always obey their husbands,’ compared with 5% of non-Muslim Britons, again, vastly more others hold this view than Muslims. At this point the view on polygamy is reiterated. Whilst not polygamy, and certainly not about assuming that women should do what they’re told, polyamory is a small and growing subculture in the UK. There is even a “non-monogamous” option on OKCupid (and you can’t really call it cheating if you’re open about it, which at least implies that polyamory is a big enough deal for OKCupid to have that option). So we have a minority view that many Muslims hold that some non-Muslims might have at least some sympathy with. I don’t want to get sidelined into a discussion about the difference between polyamory and polygamy. Suffice to say that media coverage, such as this one in the Independent, often focuses on one male/two female polyamorous triads – though that might say more about media prurience than about polyamory. What I wanted to introduce was the idea that some people have views that are at least nominally or partially compatible with Muslims, and those people aren’t targeted for having those views, albeit that they are still somewhat fringe at the moment.

Now, let’s look at the statistics about homosexuality in a little more depth. Where only 18% of all Muslims think that Homosexuality should be legal, 28% of British Muslims aged 18-24 agree that Homosexuality should be legal, as compared to 2% of those over 65. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, so there is no direct comparison to be drawn to modern British attitudes, but it’s probably fair to say that if you’re for the legality of homosexuality, you’re probably pro-same sex marriage (the vice is definitely versa). In a society where Same Sex marriage has been legalized, albeit only in 2013, once someone has made the decision to be for freedom of sexual orientation, they’re now under pressure from broader society to make the relatively short jump to being for the legal recognition of relationships that arise form that orientation. As such, a comparison between a YouGov poll of the general population from mid-May, 2013, with regard to same sex marriage, and views on the legality of homosexuality amongst Muslims may put things in perspective. In this we find that only 54% of non-Muslims support gay marriage, with 37% opposing; amongst Conservative supporters, that drops to 45% in favour, 48% oppose; UKIP supporters swing further still, 38% in support, and 53% opposing.

Ignoring politics for the moment, the sentiments of 18-24 year old Muslims is trending towards that of Britons aged over 60. (I put very approximate reciprocal ‘Oppose’ numbers into the table below, just to illustrate the general trend.)

The law enabling same sex marriage, as finally passed, states that no religious organization can be compelled to perform these ceremonies. It’s hard to see how highly religious Muslims are failing to fit in to British society, therefore.

SAME SEX MARRIAGE Lib.Dem. Labour Conservative UKIP
Support 72 57 45 38
Oppose 24 31 48 53
(60+) (40-59) (25-39) (18-24)
Support 28 58 70 74
Oppose 63 32 21 17
 Legal Homosexuality Muslim: 18-24 65+
Support 28 2
Oppose ~70 ~95


Now, consider that in times of high stress, uncertainty, and instability, people become more religious (Hogg, Kruglanski & Bos, 2013; Paul, 2009), and less reliant on government (Kay, Shepherd, Blatz & Chua, 2010). See also Gregory Paul’s further work related to his Successful Societies Scale. Consider, also that strong religiosity is linked to more conservative political views (Altemeyer, 2006). Additionally, note that Muslim families are almost twice as likely to have small children as the general population (whilst Muslims are 4.8% of the overall population, they are 8.1% of all school-age children). There is also a very strong link with parenting and conservative views (Altemeyer, 2006; Hohman, 2015), which must link, at least in part, to the high stress and uncertainty mentioned above.

One can expect certain behaviours in line with heightened religiosity, we see it in the US, but we’ve been (mostly) spared it here in the UK. According to the survey, 18% of British Muslim’s sympathize with violence against those who mock the prophet. There’s that word “sympathize” again. Although, how you “sympathize” with violence, I’m not sure. You might sympathize with people who commit violence in the service of fighting injustice… but another question arises, how did the person answering the question perceive “mockery”?

Whilst we’re noticing the religiousness of Muslims it’s appropriate to point out that the blasphemy law was only struck from the books, in the UK, in 2008. How quickly we forget, and get self-righteous about our newly enlightened position.

Speaking of hypocrisy and stereotypes, Martin Boon, tells us that only 2/3 of Muslim’s condemn stoning for adultery, compared to nearly all members of the general British public. This of course is a problem. Meanwhile, the 40+% of the population who claim to adhere to some form Christianity believe in the importance of a book that advocates the exact same thing. If there were any instances of this being carried out in the UK, it is even further back in history than the abolition of the blasphemy law. How fortunate! Unfortunately, section 54 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which came into law in October of 2010, allows infidelity to be used as a defense for murder (see Horder & Fitz-Gibbon, 2015, for a discussion of the impact of this law). So, again, where’s the vast chasm of differing attitudes?

The tone of the presentation gets worse at 25:55:

“It’s clear that I, and many others involved in the policy-making field just got the aspirations of British Muslims wrong. Our mistake was to imagine that because historically other minority communities – Hindus and Sikhs, for example – had gradually moved to adopt some of the behaviours of the majority, that Muslims would follow the same pattern. But our survey suggests significant number of British Muslims don’t want to change, and don’t want to move to adopt the behaviours of the majority. … Many British Muslims would rather that non Muslim Britain changed its ways to accommodate their way of life.”

There are so many things wrong with this. But they can all be summed up by pointing out that there are many significant differences between the histories of the relationships between the English and Hindus and Sikhs, as compared to that between the English and Muslims. English occupation of Hindu and Sikh territories mostly ended quite a while ago. Whilst the echoes of empire are doubtless still felt in those places, the impact of British colonialism, and British support of US programmes of interventionist politics in the Middle East and Pakistan, and an illegal war or two, may have more than a little influence on Muslim sympathies with their countrymen (and women), and may well have influence on who has fled those countries to come to Britain.

I am not a historian, so I don’t want to get caught up in a long discussion about the history of the region that was home to so many of the Muslims that now live in the UK, whether in this generation, or generations past. I’m not a statistician, either, but I think the statistics that this documentary set out to present a contrast between hindus/Sikhs and Muslims need some context and balance, so here goes…

British Hindus and Sikhs, combined, are half the total numbers of British Muslims, and so are less likely to have that many communities where they make up 20% or more of the local population. According to the 2011 census, half of all British Hindus live in London. In other words, 400,000 Hindus live in a city of around eight million. So in London, Hindus make up around 5% of the population, on a par with the overall population of Muslims in the UK.

Year Hindu Growth Sikh Growth Muslim Growth
1961 30,000 16,000 50,000
1971 138,000 360.0% 72,000 350.0% 226,000 352.0%
1981 278,000 101.4% 144,000 100.0% 553,000 144.7%
1991 397,000 42.8% 206,000 43.1% 950,000 71.8%
2001 559,000 40.8% 340,000 65.0% 1,600,000 68.4%
2011 817,000 46.2% 423,000 24.4% 2,707,000 69.2%

According to the 2011 census the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest, Brent, Enfield, Ealing, and Haringey, along with the City of Westminster, were home to the majority of Muslims in London. These are the areas in London that were amongst the top 20 for the largest Muslim populations, per capita, as at 2011. As such this is a good shortlist for the communities selected by ICM for this survey. They total 581,997. Along with smaller populations around London, Muslims make up 12.4% of the population (and Londoners account for 40% of the UK’s Muslims). That is starkly different to the 50% of British Hindus that make up 5% of the London population. So why are we surprised that Muslims have a different social trajectory? Especially given the recent socio-psychological and geopolitical issues that relate to that movement, much of which is ongoing.

The implication from Phillips’ comment is that policy-makers were surprised when a population that is between two and six times the size of the reference population(s) didn’t behave in the same way. Muslim population growth is taking much longer to regress to the general population’s mean. Between 2001 and 2011 population growth in the UK was around 7%. Without Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, it drops to 4.8%. Not only is the Muslim population itself more than double that of the reference groups (see table below where “Both” is Hindu and Sikh combined), but Muslim population growth is almost double, too (33% of the Muslim population was aged 15 years or under in 2011, compared to 19% of the population as a whole). This makes a very strong case for educating our policymakers in statistics and demography or, I don’t know, actually using the ONS to interpret statistics for policy decisions.

Year Both Growth Muslim Growth
1961 46,000 50,000
1971 210,000 356.5% 226,000 352.0%
1981 422,000 101.0% 553,000 144.7%
1991 603,000 42.9% 950,000 71.8%
2001 899,000 49.1% 1,600,000 68.4%
2011 1,240,000 37.9% 2,707,000 69.2%

A strong thread throughout this ”documentary” is the concern about the lack of integration, and the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that arises from, and is strengthened by, this lack of integration (ironically not helped by the presentation to this point). But sometimes it was the very fact of adopting a British attitude that was demonised, a kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ dichotomy. At 33:11 we get this gem:

“…’live and let live’ is probably the most commonly accepted expression of British tolerance. Usually accompanied with a sort of ‘well, what can you do?’ shrug. But, there is a problem with this ‘live and let live’ laissez-faire approach: our survey revealed that the more people hankered after a separate life the more sympathetic they were to violence and extremism, and that really does matter. … When it came to exploring attitudes to violence, the survey asked British Muslims what actions they would take if they knew someone who was involved with supporting terrorism in Syria. Just 1/3, 34% said they would report it to the police. There may be several reasons for not shopping would-be jihadists… one, of course, is that you might be sympathetic to their cause.”

I find this reasonable-sounding “several reasons” followed by the less reasonable “one, of course, is that you might be sympathetic to their cause” to be inflammatory, and the sort of thing one expects from Fox “News”. According to this version, your average Muslim is supposed to live and let live, except where it comes to other Muslims having sympathies for terrorism. Which seems fair enough, on the face of it, but given the conflation of Muslims with terrorism in popular conception (only increased by this very presentation), Muslims also have a pretty strong motivation to not say anything, and to hope that they’re wrong about the suspected terrorist sympathizer, in order that the stereotype not be perpetuated, and that they be not personally associated with it. Additionally, and problematic for the validity of this survey, “terrorism IN Syria,” which is what the question asked about, is very different from terrorism in general. Syria has a dictator, and insurgents backed by numerous world powers. In Syria, terrorism is about the only means that some people have to fight back, caught between the oppressive regime of their own government, and the oppressive insurgence of someone else’s utopian dream of a Caliphate, supported by various vested interests in an international proxy war.

I have pointed out the use of the root word “sympathy” a number of times. Martin Boon, addresses this, saying, “There is no right or wrong of measuring sentiment on the use of violence, but we decided to use the word sympathy – the expression of sympathy toward violent questions or sensitivities – as the best way of dealing with it, because it has been used in similar surveys.”

The primary meaning of sympathy, according to that most British of institutions, the Oxford English Dictionary, is, “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”, the secondary definition is “Understanding between people; common feeling”, but the survey seems to be using the third, and thus least used, meaning – “The state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere.” The usage may possibly be a conflation of one or other of the first two with this last definition. Asking about “sympathy” which, by its common usage, people take to mean “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” and using the alternative definition – “The state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere” – as a lens through which to interpret the results, is begging the question – not a good thing in a “rigorous survey.”


“What we do know from the survey is that Muslim’s who have sympathy for violence are significantly more likely to hold illiberal views on issues like gay rights, and women’s equality than those who don’t. So what the survey is showing us is the emergence of what you might describe as a nation within the nation. Where many hold very different values and behaviours from the majority. I’d say that hardly anybody wants to see that happen, but the question is what are we going to do about it?” (37:05-37:37)


How do you hold a behaviour? A behaviour is, most often, a course of action predicated on a value. You can hold a value. This comment seems to be indicative of an underlying bias in the reporting of these results. Holding different values isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s not always easy to know what a person’s values are. But behaviour? Behaving differently is much easier to portray as bad – the use of the word here just seems to add to the bias apparent through-out this presentation. I’ve repeatedly illustrated that many other Britons hold similar views to Muslims, and in greater numbers, they’re just a little harder to pick on, demographically.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown then makes an extremely important point, one that, in combination with my point about the socio-psychology and geopolitical realities of Muslim immigration, is the crux of the matter:

“Increasingly – and this really interests me – I’m getting young Muslims writing to me who hate the lives they’re living. They hate it. Some of them are gay. Some of them – men and women – have been forced into marriages. Some of them are lost, because they feel no affinity to anything or anybody, ‘cause they’ve never been allowed to. You know, it’ just this thing about being a Muslim – one of them said to me, ‘I am a Muslim, but I am so much more than that.’” (39:01-39:34)


Phillips’ narration continues:

“Those of us who are not Muslims shouldn’t be telling those who are how to live their lives or how to meet the needs of their faith. And nobody likes the old idea of assimilation where people abandon their cultural identity in order to blend in to some kind of mainstream. But that doesn’t mean we do nothing. Many people, including me, believe that we can create a set of policies that promote integration, make clear that there are some things on which the society will not compromise, and would support liberal trends in all parts of society. We call it a policy of active integration” (39:57-40:37).


I won’t directly quote the next segment, but it suggests that desegregating schools such that no ethnic group can be more than 50% of the roll would be a swift and decisive means to increasing everybody’s exposure to each other. This is “active integration,” and it seems to be working well in one school in Oldham where it was tried. Finally! Something I can wholeheartedly agree with! It only took 40 minutes.

So, Phillips closes with:

“Britain faces a huge challenge: adopting a policy of active integration may give rise to some ideas that make you, me, Muslims, non-Muslims, everyone, feel pretty uncomfortable. But what is our choice? We could cross our fingers, close our eyes, and hope that the segregation, the tensions, the periodic outrages, and the backlash that follows will, somehow, simply vanish. Or, we could seize the initiative; take steps to support those Muslims who do want their communities to change – in their attitudes towards women, towards lesbian and gay people and, indeed, towards violence. I know which of those I would choose. A policy of active integration must be the first step on the path towards those shared values that will come to define what it means to be British, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” (45:45-46:42)


I’m honestly flabbergasted that a documentary that spent so much time misrepresenting statistics about Muslims, ignoring the very real socio-psychological and geopolitical realities of the Muslim diaspora, nevertheless came to an appropriate conclusion. I get the strong impression that the entire thing was an exercise in promoting “active integration,” which is just a new name for an old idea (as far I’m concerned). I’m aware that multi-culturalism has come to mean a kind of segregated coexistence of peoples (i.e. a kinder, gentler apartheid), and it is that multi-culturalism that the pundits tell us has failed. But the multi-culturalism I adhere to, which is no doubt coloured by my being raised in New Zealand, is the one where people share spaces, and their ideas and traditions with each other, as openly as their personalities allow. So, apparently that is called Active Integration, now, in the UK at least.

So, having dealt with significant issues of statistics, context, and bad journalism/sloppy presentation, my next post on this documentary, which will be much shorter, is going to simply look at the issue of integration from the point of view of developmental psychology, neurobiology, ideology, and social change. The general idea being that no-one will be hurt by having a better, more empathic understanding of what it’s like to change countries, and how that change impacts the individual.


About COEXISTential

I'm a psychology graduate, about to undertake a Masters. I did my first degree at 36 for various reasons, and am contunuing in my education for better reasons. The focus of my research is the psychology of morality, and thus also religion and politics. The focus of this blog is to apply my learnings from this research to the tricky problem of fixing the world. I am a progressive liberal, humanist, and agnostic-atheist, but the individuality of my principles is more important than the labels under which they broadly fall. So let's talk about life, the universe, and everything, and how best for us humans to exist within it.
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