Dan Forman, Senior Associate
Tuesday 3 March 2020
A lot of the discussion and coverage around our Listening to British Muslims report has so far focused on its findings regarding the Prevent programme.
That’s understandable because Prevent has long been a source of public policy controversy (although not, it turns out, a source of a lot of public knowledge or debate). And Prevent was also a central part of the research, not least because it has been so controversial and we wanted to find out more about what the public actually know and think about it. We are strongly recommending that the Independent Inquiry on Prevent does the same.
But the Savanta ComRes polling and the extensive focus groups we held around the country, revealed much more about British Muslim opinion than views on Prevent. So below we have set out five of the many other interesting insights we have taken from it.
1. British Muslims are very concerned about the media
This issue was not something we set out to research but became impossible to avoid. In nearly all of our qualitative focus group research it came up unprompted as a strong theme, and this was wholly corroborated by the quantitative opinion polling work, which put ‘media representation’ second only to ‘Islamophobia’ and ahead of ‘the far right’ in terms of “what makes Britain a poor place to be a Muslim”. It found that the media (at 36%) was a distinct outlier compared to the trust that British Muslims have in other institutions such as schools (75%) or the NHS (84%) to treat them fairly. Neither was this just something that the British Muslim population felt, as our sample of the wider public was very much in line, as the chart below shows.
Our focus groups revealed lots of interesting angles to the criticism. One was a lack of balance in media coverage of Islam and Muslims, with participants often feeling that only negative stories were ever reported. Another was far too much conflation between Islam and extremism, with particular frustration that known extremists such as Anjem Choudary were given undue attention by the media.
"At one time, every time there was an incident in the Muslim community, all you saw on the news was Anjem Choudary. And he doesn't represent Muslims. And why would the press or the news go to an extremist to show the country the rest of the people that he represents?"
Some participants even revealed that these media associations had influenced their own thinking on the links between terrorism and Islam, even though from personal experience they knew this to be exaggerated.
"It's really sad because as soon as I hear ‘extremism’ I think ‘Muslim’, and that's not what should be the case but I think because the media again have played such a big role in just linking those two words, like they're going to be like inseparable now in everyone's minds, which is not the best."
2. Trust in police is high and British Muslims want more, not less, policing
While not as strong as trust in other institutions, British Muslim trust in the police is stronger than might have been expected. On the issue of whether institutions treat Muslims fairly (see chart above), the police (at 59%) scored similarly to other institutions such as the courts (63%) and central government (61%). Asked more directly “how much would you say you trusted the police?”, 64% of British Muslims gave a positive response, with answers broadly in line with the wider public sample (see chart below).
Digging further into this, we measured which tasks people had most trust in the police in. This found that significantly fewer British Muslims (64%) trusted the police to counter extremism or terrorism compared to the general population (78%). But this 64% figure was still higher than the proportion of British Muslims who trusted the police to investigate routine crimes such as burglary, which in turn was bigger than the proportion of the general population who trusted the police to investigate such routine crimes.
Clearly there is much room for improvement and lots for police forces and police and crime commissioners to consider here, especially in areas with large British Muslim populations. There is a strong desire for more police engagement but also for more, not less, policing in communities, as one focus group participant suggested:
“My only issue at the moment, is the police cuts, there aren’t enough of them [police officers] at the moment.”
3. British Muslims are not in denial about Islamist extremism and feel an extra responsibility to help
Neither our polling nor our focus groups revealed any widespread denial that extreme Islamism is a real threat to the country or indeed to Muslim communities themselves. Some participants were rightly keen to stress the small numbers of extremists compared to the large British Muslim population and/ or the difference between the religion of Islam and the misrepresentation of it by extremists (and related to this there was sometimes some discussion around the value of the phrase ‘Islamism’ itself). Some focus group participants expressed some scepticism about the balance of the threat level, but no one denied that Islamist terrorist acts perpetrated by British Muslims had taken place or that the police and security services were wrong to be worried.
And our focus groups revealed a general sense of additional responsibility that British Muslims feel towards tackling extreme Islamism. Partly due to a fear that it is their own communities that suffer the consequences of reprisal far right attacks and hate crimes (as well as being victims of indiscriminate Islamist terrorism themselves), but also out of a sense of revulsion at what is being done in their name and a strong desire to stop young people being drawn into it.
"Yeah, 100 per cent. Or if I knew something was going on in my mosque that was a bit dodgy I would one hundred per cent go to them [Prevent]."
“This is totally against Islam, Islam is a peaceful religion. We are totally against these people, these terrorists, we disown these people who are doing what they're doing. Islam is not about that.”
4. British Muslims think the UK is a good place to practice Islam but concern about Islamophobia is rising
While reports like ours inevitably focus on problems, challenges and areas for improvement – in our case, as crime and justice specialists, particularly for the police – it is always good to put things in context and celebrate positive findings. So, notwithstanding that there is always room for improvement here, it was gratifying to find that a strong majority of British Muslims (76%) believe that the UK is a good place to practice Islam. This is also considerably higher than the wider public’s view, as the chart below shows, while many focus group participants made the point that life for them in Britain is much better than it would be elsewhere in the world.
But within that we also picked up a changing picture of what the good and bad elements of life as a British Muslim are. Several, especially older, focus group participants reported that while overt race-based racism had declined in the past 30-40 years, discrimination and abuse based on their being Muslims, rather than Pakistani heritage for example, had increased since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and particularly in the past few years.
Participant: "Before, back in the days, it was a great place to live as a Muslim. No one used to worry about if you were a Muslim or if you were not."
Facilitator: "When you say ‘back in the days’, what do you mean?"
Participant: "Early 90s. In the early 90s nobody used to question that. But nowadays the first thing they ask is if you’re a Muslim or not. It’s like everything changed. They ask you questions, are you a Muslim, your religion. Early 90s, before 2000, nobody used to care. All they used to care about was whether you were black or white. Now, if you’re black and Muslim, it’s even worse."
Facilitator: "So there might have been racism, black and white issues, but it wasn’t to do with your religion?"
Participant: "Not at all."
While our polling is not part of a time series to enable this comparison to be measured, the high score of Islamophobia in the chart below does highlight the current level of British Muslim concern. And within that it is significantly worse among British Muslim women (often the recipients of street-level abuse and attacks due to their visibility) at 80% than it is among British Muslim men at 48%.
Because it came through so strongly in our focus groups we also asked a question in our polling about whether Islamophobia has increased in the past five years. It found that 68% of British Muslims believed that it had.
5. British Muslims all think life is better where they live than it is elsewhere in the UK
The sense that life as a Muslim in the UK is better than it is in much of the rest of the world also repeated itself at a more micro level. It became apparent during the course of our focus groups that nearly everyone thought life was worse elsewhere than it was for them and, a bit like the studies of motorists who all think they are above average drivers, they couldn’t all be right. This phenomenon was also borne out by our polling, as the chart below shows, with British Muslims in every region of the country all thinking their area was better to live in than elsewhere.
There was an amusing, perhaps even parochial, element of this that was also to do with regional or local pride. It wasn’t just that Londoners thought life was better in London and Scots in Scotland, but also urban Welsh Muslims in Cardiff thought that their life was better there than it would be in nearby Cowbridge or the Valleys up the road.
“London is much, much more diverse than all the other cities in the country. [...] I think that is the number one reason why they cancel out all the racism and Islamophobia”
However we also began to wonder whether something else was driving this. This ‘better here’ view among British Muslims seemed to have become hyper-charged in an age of social media, with participants often having wildly different perceptions of what life was like in other areas than had been reported to us by people actually living there. These views also often seemed to be being gleaned from channels such as YouTube and Facebook. Without wishing to play down the impact of individual incidents on victims, there was a sense that news of any Islamophobic hate crime is spiralling very quickly across British Muslim networks, on top of any traditional media coverage, giving a disproportionate impression that ‘other areas’ are more riven with problems than they actually are.
“It's probably manifested a lot more in the South where [in] certain parts of England you can't go ... you know, if you're Indian you can't go to a Pakistani area, if you're Christian you can't go into certain areas. And you hear about that in the media all the time.”