Race Matters

#WhatMuslimsReallyThink programme is based on a flawed poll skewed to find a 'them and us' narrative

Trevor Phillips’ Channel 4 documentary is dividing society and painting an inaccurate picture of British Muslims, says social research analyst Dr Zubaida Haque

If you really want to know what British Muslims think then you probably don’t want to pay too much attention to Trevor Phillips’ Channel 4 documentary tonight. If the reporting of the ICM poll – on which it is based – is anything to go by, then Trevor’s documentary will be biased, misleading and totally inflammatory. So just another day for British Muslims.

I had to laugh when I downloaded the ICM poll data – the full 615 pages – to assess its’ methodology. I wondered if ICM or Trevor Phillips were deliberately trying to obfuscate the data.  Why, for instance, is the ethnicity of the Muslim sample not clear? But ICM are a highly reputable polling group so we should probably give them the benefit of the doubt. And actually some of the results makes for interesting but not new reading.

Dr Zubaida Haque
Dr Zubaida Haque

Unfortunately, I don’t have all day to play with the data but at a glance I’m a little concerned about two things. First is the poll’s methodology – in terms of framing of the questions (very leading and very “Islam and Muslim focused”), and second is the analysis of the findings. A brief look at the 615 pages of data suggests that a pre-existing notion about British Muslims influenced the methodology, and in particular the framing of its questions. But, of course, I could be wrong.

I’m also a little concerned about the sample. I have no doubt that the sample was gathered in a “robust way”, but that doesn’t mean that the sample is entirely representative of the British Muslim population. It has an older aged sample – over 80% are over age 25 and 50% over age 35; over third of the sample are in higher social grades; over half are owner occupiers; nearly half are in employment; and approximately 56% of the Muslim sample are born outside of Britain.

Why does that matter? It matters because in contrast to this Muslim sample, over half of the Muslim population in the general population are under the age of 25, a mere 5.5% are in the higher professional and managerial professions, about 40% own their own property, only a fifth are in full time employment and almost half are British born.

You may think I’m being pedantic, but in statistics and sampling, these differences matter. It means we’re not comparing like with like, and it means the Muslim sample that Trevor is building his “nation within a nation” argument is highly misleading.

In reality, all that ICM’s poll tells us is that if you ask an older population who are living in particular perhaps deprived, but socially conservative areas, their views on homosexuality, single sex schooling and faith, you will tend to get responses that are quite “socially conservative.” Not very surprising really.

And then there is the “control group” in the poll that is used to compare the findings from Muslims with the “rest of the population” – a control group who at a glance are younger, more diverse in ethnicity and more affluent.

Compared to this “control group”, I suspect most of us would have more conservative views. Having said that, I noted some interesting views from the Muslim sample in this poll: they have a stronger sense of belonging to Britain (86%) compared to the general population/control group (83%), they believe that Britain has higher moral standards than the general population and they are warmer towards Jews (57.1% on the “warmometer”) compared to the general population (55.2%). Isn’t that worth noting?

All of this begs the question of why didn’t the poll compare the views of the Muslim sample with equally older, religious and practicing Christians, Hindus and Jewish population? Surely it can’t be because Trevor wanted to exaggerate the “them and us” divide between Muslims and the rest of the country that he has been pedalling for the last several months?

Issues about Muslims, identity, integration and cohesion are much more complex than the partial analysis of this poll suggests. Politicians and media folk like Trevor continuously cluster the Muslim community under one umbrella – as though their sheer diversity from different ethnic (Asian, non-Asian, Black and white), cultural and migration backgrounds are irrelevant.

They talk about young British Muslims as though the only thing that defines them is “being Muslim and having Islamic views” without ever pondering their broader experiences and inequalities in the British Labour market. Of course, Muslim identity matters to Muslim people in Britain; but it’s not the only thing that matters.

Identity, ethnicity, racial inequality, gender and poverty all have an impact on this group, and the effects are deep-rooted and damaging to their life prospects. But the complexity of these issues are not recognised in the integration debates that are taking place at the moment, and it’s a difficult place for Muslims to rise from when the premise is that “they are the other group” and they are the “problem”.

Dr Zubaida Haque is a Runnymede Trust fellow writing in a personal capacity

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