By Rachel Shabi
14 Apr 2016
If the title were the only issue, maybe it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But as it is, the documentary What British Muslims Really Think, which aired on Britain’s Channel 4 on April 13, is so full of problems that we might as well start there.
Because it does seem a tiny bit troublesome, suggesting as it does that “British Muslims” all think the same thing and, moreover, that what they tell you isn’t what they’re really thinking.
And as it turns out, these are the two operational premises running through this one-hour documentary. It begins by taking some time to establish the legitimacy of the polling upon which it is based as accurately representing Britain’s population of three million Muslims. We’ll get to the problems with the methodology in a bit.
The poll, we hear, is a “unique new survey”, the findings of which will “shock many” and point to a “looming threat to our very way of life”.
British mosques open their doors for public tours
Then it goes on to steadily create the fearful impression of Muslims in the United Kingdom as superficially a part of society – they seem quite nice and friendly, don’t they? – but actually quite dodgy when you get to really know them.
And the trouble is that the Muslims you meet at work or at the shops or on the school run or wherever won’t tell you their “innermost thoughts”, according to this documentary – hence the need for some face-to-face polling.
So, we start with the nice stats about the majority of British Muslims feeling British, feeling an emotional attachment to the country.
Everything seems fine but then, hang on, here are the issues over which British Muslims diverge from the rest of the population – not that this is an “us” and “them” set-up, you understand.
The polling shows that 52 percent of Muslims think homosexuality should be illegal, a third believe that polygamy is acceptable and nearly a quarter support the implementation of Sharia law.
There’s more, too, about “the equivalent of 100,000 Muslims” – as extrapolated from the polling of 4 percent – having sympathy for suicide bombers, who fight injustice, alongside intolerance for freedom of expression when it comes to portraying the Prophet Muhammad, and also believing that Jews have too much power – at 44 percent.
The survey methods have aroused criticism, as many have pointed out that polling in Muslim-dense parts of the country by default means that those questioned are more likely to be socially disadvantaged and socially conservative.
The questioning took place in areas of Britain that are 20 percent Muslim – but so many British Muslims don’t live in such areas and a majority say they don’t want to. So much for refusing to integrate.
But even if the figures are accurate – and other polls have also pointed to illiberalism over issues such as homosexuality – where we are going with this repeated accusation and worry over intolerant views?
Nobody is suggesting that such opinions should go unchallenged. But are we going to bind full citizenship to tolerance, or to not being a bigot? Are we confusing “deeply intolerant” with “being a violent extremist”? What is going to happen to our stated desire to build robust social cohesion if we keep singling out British Muslims as unique special cases? And what is it that is really underlying such constant scrutiny?
A clue can perhaps be found in a segment in the Channel 4 documentary when Trevor Phillips, former head of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, who published the country’s first report on Islamophobia 20 years ago, asks why the “views and values of many British Muslims are still so out of line with rest of society”.
Intolerance falls away when you have inclusion, prejudices can evaporate in contact with other people and with the understanding on both sides that integration is a two-way process.
He suggests that some of it might be down to the “ancestral backgrounds” of British Muslims, countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh or in the Middle East, where dodgy views are more commonplace.
Worse, he says, cheap flights and fast technology mean that Muslims are regularly taking planes to those countries, and if they haven’t somehow caught the intolerance from their ancestral homes, they are picking it up via satellite TV in their own British front rooms.
It feels to me that this is the stuff that can often inform a familiar theory, that “backward cultures” – not coincidentally, often former colonies – will somehow overwhelm enlightened liberal countries, whose long-established laws and democracies somehow just aren’t robust enough to, these days, withstand someone on the street proclaiming that they want a caliphate in Britain (as featured in the Channel 4 programme).
Apart from anything else, it’s this sort of mindset that helps cement a divide, because it doesn’t see a spectrum, because it can’t absorb the possibility of intolerant liberals, or liberal Muslims or all the shades in between.
As Jonathan Birdwell, of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue – a think-tank that works to combat extremism – told me, the trouble with such a focus and such surveys is that they risk dividing us even further.
It might make other Britons think that a Muslim person inevitably holds these views heard in the survey, so they prejudge and don’t engage, while the Muslims who don’t hold those views feel attacked,” he says.
“We do need to talk, be open and see if there are any policy implications, but the worry is that this constant negative press about the Muslim community will feed polarisation.”
None of this is to give sexism, homophobia or any other prejudices a free pass. Nobody is suggesting that it’s brilliant that a minority of British Muslims support stoning – or, for that matter, that 45 percent of the overall British population would bring back hanging.
But intolerance falls away when you have inclusion, prejudices can evaporate in contact with other people and with the understanding on both sides that integration is a two-way process.
A far more productive focus might be one that, for example, seeks out real workplace integration, at all pay grades, for a Muslim population that is still one of the most deprived in the country.
Trevor Phillips argues for integration in What British Muslims Really Think, although you may not agree with the ways he suggests getting there.
But the trouble is that, amid all that scary noise about sneakily intolerant, potentially dangerous Muslims – stealth Muslims, if you like – the necessary messages about inclusion just can’t come across as sincere, or ring true.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.