Authors: Jon Clements, Executive Director | Dan Forman | Manon Roberts
Monday 2 March 2020
Homegrown terrorism inspired by Islamist and far right extremism continues to pose a severe threat to Britain and its population.
There is widespread agreement that stopping people becoming radicalised or engaged in extremism is critical to reducing this threat and that building support for this activity among sections of the population most at risk is essential. With Islamist terrorism posing the largest overall threat(1), support for counter-extremism from British Muslims is particularly important.
Despite this, surprisingly little publicly available research is available on British Muslim attitudes to policing and to counter-extremism efforts. Instead, there are superficial characterisations of British Muslim opinion, which divide people into binary groups. Where research does exist, it has been media-commissioned and/ or has methodological limitations, while larger scale, more robust academic studies have tended to focus on broader research topics, without looking at attitudes towards extremism specifically.
There has been evidence that trust in the police is relatively high among British Muslims and considerably higher than among, for example, Britain’s Black Caribbean population. However, it has not been known how deep or broad this trust is and, in particular, whether it extends to police involvement in counter-extremism. Previous research conducted by Crest identified a potentially broader range of views than the dominant media narratives suggest, with most British Muslims neither wholly hostile nor wholly supportive of counter-terrorism or counter-extremism programmes, but holding a range of questions and legitimate concerns about this work and its impact.
This research project aimed to build a richer picture of British Muslim attitudes towards life in the UK and its institutions generally and towards the police and counter-extremism work in particular, using methodologically strong qualitative and quantitative research. Following an initial review of existing research we conducted structured focus groups with British Muslims in eight towns and cities across Britain and subsequently commissioned a robust opinion poll of a representative sample of Britain’s Muslim population and a comparison group of the general population. We set out our key findings from this research below.
Though this report does not make detailed recommendations, we do reach a number of conclusions which have implications in particular for politicians, for the police and for the media. Specifically, we find that there is a significant gap between what people assume or believe British Muslims think and what many British Muslims do actually think about extremism, policing and the Prevent programme.
Overall, the results of our research are very difficult to reconcile with the dominant, polarising narratives, which argue that the Prevent programme is a “toxic brand” mistrusted by British Muslims and, alternatively, that British Muslims are “in denial” about Islamist extremism. We found majorities of British Muslims trust the police, are concerned about Islamist extremism, support the aims of the Prevent programme and would refer someone to it if they suspected that they were being radicalised. We found that the views of British Muslims frequently mirror those of the general population and even where they differ they rarely do so dramatically.
We also conclude that British Muslims have a broader range of views than is commonly acknowledged by politicians, the media and other participants in the debate on extremism and how best to counter it. We have sought to not use the phrase “the Muslim community” in this report since our findings suggest it has limited or no utility. Finally, our research should give the media in its broadest sense cause for concern, with British Muslims appearing to be more concerned by media representation than by job discrimination or even the far right.
This is independent research. It has been funded by a charitable trust and carried out by a non-partisan consultancy. We recognise that our findings may be a surprise to many and be challenging for some to accept. However, we hope all those with an interest in the experience of Muslims who live in Britain, and in their views on policing and counter-extremism work will consider them carefully.
Summary of findings
Life in Britain as a Muslim
British Muslims think Britain is a good place to be a Muslim: More than three quarters (76 per cent) of British Muslims polled for this report considered Britain to be a good place to be a Muslim. When asked what makes Britain a good place to be a Muslim, “freedom of religion” was the most commonly selected option amongst British Muslims and GB adults. It is notable that British Muslims’ own view on this was significantly more positive than amongst the GB adults group (of which 52 per cent thought Britain is a good place to be a Muslim).
Most British Muslims tend to believe their local area is better to live in as a Muslim than other parts of Britain: Fifty-nine per cent of British Muslims polled believed their local area was better to live in as a Muslim than other parts of Britain; 26 per cent considered their local area the same; and 10 per cent considered it worse. This view also came out strongly within the focus groups.
The media and other institutions
British Muslims’ trust in institutions as ‘fair’ is generally very strong, apart from the media: British Muslims consistently gave net favourable ratings to British institutions in terms of how fairly they treat Muslim citizens, with the exception of the media. The NHS received the highest net rating of fair treatment – eighty-four per cent of British Muslims thought the NHS treats Muslims fairly.
The media emerged as a distinct outlier in terms of negative perceptions among British Muslims, with misrepresentation emerging prominently in the focus groups: The media received the lowest ratings of fair treatment, with only 36 per cent of British Muslims rating its treatment as fair. This view of unfair treatment by the media was corroborated by 39 per cent of British Muslims choosing the media as a reason for “what makes Britain a poor place to be a Muslim” (second only to Islamophobia), and by the media’s representation of British Muslims emerging strongly as a theme across the focus groups.
Islamophobia and the far right
British Muslims are worried about the far right, but Islamophobia and media representation were bigger concerns: More than a quarter (28 per cent) of British Muslims selected the far right as a reason Britain is a poor place to be a Muslim, the fourth highest choice on the list behind Islamophobia (64 per cent), media representation (39 per cent) and job discrimination (30 per cent). However, there was significant variation within these figures by gender, with Islamophobia cited by 80 percent of British Muslim women compared to 48 per cent of British Muslim men and media representation cited by 46 per cent of British Muslim women compared to 31 per cent of British Muslim men. Overall, 89 per cent of British Muslims considered Islamophobia to be a problem in Britain, compared to 82 per cent of GB adults. British Muslim adults were almost twice as likely to consider Islamophobia to be ‘a large problem’ than GB adults (30 per cent vs 16 per cent).
An in-depth look at trust in the police
Both British Muslims and GB adults show relatively high levels of trust in the police and this extends to views about the police’s role in counter-extremism, as well as more routine police tasks: Nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of British Muslims said they trust the police compared to 71 per cent of GB adults. On “helping the vulnerable” and “responding to emergencies”, British Muslims’ levels of trust were broadly in line with the wider public (at 65 per cent and 67 per cent, and 77 per cent and 80 per cent respectively). A higher proportion of British Muslims trust the police more on “countering extremism/ terrorism” than do on “investigating routine crimes e.g. burglary” (64 per cent and 59 per cent). The proportion of British Muslims who trust the police on routine crimes is significantly higher than that of GB adults (59 per cent vs to 47 percent), though proportionally less trust the police on “countering extremism/ terrorism” compared to GB adults (64 per cent vs 78 per cent).
British Muslims and GB adults have very similar views on police engagement: More than half of British Muslims (53 per cent) agreed that the police engage well with their community, compared to 51 per cent of GB adults. However, our focus groups revealed a strong sense that engagement had declined, particularly since cuts to police budgets from 2010 onwards. This was viewed very negatively, particularly in relation to the visible presence of police officers on the streets (which made it much harder to have informal engagement).
British Muslims are not in denial about the threat of extreme Islamism: Similar levels of British Muslims (63 per cent) as the wider public (67 per cent) reported that they were ‘very worried’ or ‘fairly worried’ about the threat of Islamist extremism. Our focus groups backed this up, with a common consensus being that while extremists make up a small proportion of the British Muslim population, there is little doubt that they do exist.
British Muslims have mostly not heard of the Prevent programme: A majority of British Muslims (56 per cent) are not aware of the Prevent programme, although salience at 44 per cent is higher than the 32 per cent level among the wider population. Low levels of salience were also found across our focus groups.
British Muslims tend to support the Prevent programme once it has been explained: When offered a neutral explanation of the Prevent programme four fifths (80 per cent) of British Muslims offered either unqualified (47 per cent) or qualified support (33 per cent) for it. This was only slightly lower than the 85 per cent of the wider public who did so.
British Muslims believe the police should have a prominent role in preventing extremism and terrorism: The “police and security services” was the second most popular choice of British Muslims on the question of who “should be involved in preventing extremism and terrorism before it happens”, behind only “religious groups” and ahead of schools, councils, charities and community groups for example. However at 34 per cent, the “police and security services” lags behind a long way behind the wider public’s score (at 50 per cent), pointing to a gap which needs to be closed. Likewise “national government”, while still the third most popular choice for British Muslims on this measure at 32 per cent, lags similarly far behind the 46 per cent of the wider public who chose it.
British Muslims understand the need to target the Prevent programme at communities and areas of the country where the risk of terrorists being drawn from is highest: A combined 74 per cent of British Muslims either supported (36 per cent) or supported ‘but with some concerns’ (38 per cent) Prevent’s targeting approach when it was candidly explained that it involved explicitly focusing on Muslims due to the nature and weight of the current terror threat being predominantly from extreme Islamism. Only 13 per cent said they would not support such an approach.
British Muslims would be more likely to refer someone to Prevent if they suspected they were being radicalised than the general population: Two thirds (66 per cent) of British Muslims said that they would refer concerns about someone they knew being radicalised to the Prevent programme. This was higher than the 63 per cent of the wider public who said the same.
Despite widespread support for the principles of the Prevent programme, there are concerns that need to be addressed: While support for risk-based targeting is high amongst British Muslims, it is important to acknowledge that slightly more than half of that support comes with the caveat that ‘I have some concerns’. Of those who had concerns, the most common to be expressed was “people associate Islam with terrorism” (59 per cent). “It means all Muslims are treated as suspects” featured in the top three choices of British Muslim adults and GB adults. However, all three top choices (the third being “it is unfair on innocent Muslims”) were significantly more likely to be concerns for British Muslims compared to GB adults.
 Overall, British Muslim attitudes to the police appear quite close to non-Muslim Asian attitudes and white British attitudes: 68% of white British people have trust in the police compared to 68% of Bangladeshi, 70% of Pakistani, and 42% of Black Caribbean populations (despite lower generalised trust). Source: Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES, 2010).