I’ve been called many things in my life, but a ‘non-Muslim’ is not one of them. That was, until I watched Trevor Phillips’ programme on Channel 4 entitled, ‘What British Muslim’s Really Think’ directed by Paul Copeland and David Modell. Now, I find, I have become part of a new category within British society: the ‘non-Muslims’. If you are not a Muslim, then you are in this category too.
The ‘non-Muslims’, according to Phillips, represent the British public at large. According to the results of ‘a unique new survey’, the ‘British public’ are liberal, whereas the views of Muslims – or some of ‘them’ at the very least – are ‘out of line with the rest of British society’. Why is this? Phillips asks rhetorically before informing us that ‘Part of the answer probably lies in their ancestral backgrounds’.
The somewhat controversial title, ‘What British Muslims Really Think’ – as if British Muslims are a homogenous mass rather than individuals with a range of complex viewpoints – could be an arresting entry point for a programme that genuinely seeks to unravel stereotypes and present a multiplicity of views. But this expectation fades rather rapidly as the opening sequence shows dramatic archive footage of the 7/7 bombings in London ten years ago. The sequence, accompanied by a sinister music score, is overlaid with Phillips’ opening narration: ‘Just over ten years ago, terror struck Britain. None of the bombers survived. But the menace they posed did not perish with them. Hundreds of young British men have left their own country to fight abroad. Some may return to take up arms here they say, in defence of religious belief.’ Hmmmmm….
During the programme there is one discussion with ordinary members of the Muslim community. At this, Phillips represents the rest of us as the ‘non-Muslim’ in the room. But the bulk of the evidence used to reveal What British Muslims Really Think comes from this ‘unique new survey’ commissioned by Channel 4 and analysed by Phillips. After asking 1,081 people of the Muslim faith living in areas with a high-density population and a higher than average Muslim demographic, the results are used to tell us what three million British individuals think. However, even the architects of the survey are clear that it covers only ‘half of Britain’s three million Muslims’, presumably because the other half are not living in ghettos on the outskirts of large cities. But we should be reassured, Philips tells us, because ‘While it couldn’t be guaranteed to reflect the opinions of the other half in every respect, it would be unlikely to be far out of line’. How he has reached this conclusion, we are never told. Laying anxiety aside, I remind myself that Phillips is the former Chairman of the Equality and Human Right’s Commission, so he must be presenting a balanced view.
Despite this significant caveat, Martin Boon, the man who carried out the survey, claims that it reflects ‘what Britain’s three million Muslims really think on a range of issues’ as well as, Boon continues, telling ‘us how they compare to what the rest of Britain is thinking’. Sliding into the realms of satirical comedy, Boon announced that he has chosen to illustrate the views of Muslims and ‘the rest of Britain’ through the image of a chasm. At this point, I fear the programme’s credibility may be starting to wane. Standing in front of a whiteboard on which two rocks are drawn seemingly moving further and further apart, Boon concedes, ‘We do have a number of similarities between Muslims and the wider population’ – well, at least that’s something – ‘but in actual fact,’ Boon qualifies, ‘once we look deeper into the survey results, we do find that a chasm does develop between Muslims and the way they believe, the way they think, and the wider population’. I might suggest that a survey purporting to tell us ‘the way they think’ in relation to any section of British society is nearing very dangerous ground.
And who are the rest of Britain here – the ‘non-Muslims’, that is? Who represents ‘the wider population’? Is it the farmers of Cumbria? The UKIP voters of Maidstone? Is it those living in the old mining communities of The Black Country or The Valleys? The SNP voters in Aberdeen? The descendants of Middle Eastern parents residing in Chelsea? The British-Caribbean population of Bristol? I’d be fascinated to learn who represents us ‘non-Muslims’ in twenty-first century Britain. But unfortunately, we are never told.
Despite these worrying discrepancies, Phillips draws conclusions from this survey that, in his own words, ‘will shock many’. One is that ‘significant numbers of British Muslims don’t want to change and don’t want to move to adopt the behaviours of the majority’; another is that ‘British Muslims who sympathise with violence are around twice as likely to prefer to live a more separate life here in Britain than those who don’t’; a third is that ‘the way of life for integrated Muslims is seriously challenged’; a fourth that ‘everyone who’s pinned their hopes on the rise of liberal and reforming British Muslim voices is in for a disappointment’; and finally, on a more positive note perhaps, ‘Some young British Muslims have become more extreme, but others do hold views on some issues that look a bit more like the rest of Britain’. At this point, I’m starting to wonder whether I should be contacting the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.
To take Phillips’ first conclusion, ‘significant numbers of British Muslims don’t want to change and don’t want to move to adopt the behaviours of the majority’. This is reached through extrapolating from the following data: although 56% of Muslims mix with non-Muslims outside their home but away from work and college – so over half of those surveyed – only 21% go to the home of a non-Muslim once a year or less (note the extremely sinister music score accompanying the scene) and 21% never go to the home of a non-Muslim. Presumably this is so shocking because ‘the rest of Britain’ regularly visits the homes of a whole rainbow nation of people. My mind again wonders to exactly who the rest of us actually are. How many residents of Derbyshire villages, the coastal towns of Cornwall, smaller cities of Britain such as Preston, Ipswich or Chichester regularly visit the homes of people from different races or religions? And if the answer is ‘pretty seldom’, would Phillips then conclude these people ‘don’t want to change and don’t want to move to adopt the behaviours of the majority’. A minute ago, they were the majority – the ‘non-Muslim’ one, of course. So what’s going on?
Perhaps I should not forget another piece of evidence that Phillips may argue is yet more damningly conclusive: of the 1,081 people interviewed ‘17% wish to lead a separate life as far as possible’. I can almost guarantee that if you asked 1,081 people in Maidstone this question, the percentage would be far higher.
Turning to Phillips’ second conclusive finding: ‘British Muslims who sympathise with violence are around twice as likely to prefer to live a more separate life here in Britain than those who don’t’. Again, the evidence may possibly bear a second glance. According to the statistic emblazoned across the screen, ‘6% have sympathy towards making terrorist threats as part of the political process’. The directors felt the next finding should not be printed in statistical form as all the others have been, and nor should the question be shared with the viewer. Instead, both would be explained by Martin Boon. Boon is only too pleased to oblige, ‘when it comes to the most extreme form of violence – suicide bombing using explosives for example – to meet political objectives, well, about 4% of Muslims expressed some form of sympathy with the more extremist end of it’. Leaving aside question marks around use of the word ‘sympathy’ (the word also employed by The Sun in its survey of Muslim opinion for which it was then forced to publicly apologise) the claim is made even more complex by the fact that actual question asked was whether there was ‘sympathy for the use of suicide bombing to fight injustice’. Quite why directors Paul Copeland and David Modell decided to omit the precise phrasing of this question is unclear. But it seems rather incongruous when all other questions are printed across the entire width of the screen.
These two questions, which form the basis of Phillips case for linking integration with violence, do not refer specifically to the British political process and instead ask a general question about the use of terrorist violence in the political process. Taking this into account, I would imagine that if the same question had been asked to residents of north London in the 1980s, at the height of British activist involvement in the struggle against the apartheid in South Africa, the percentage answering in the affirmative would have made double figures. Needless to say, the use of terrorist violence as part of the political process is a very complex issue. Naturally, Phillips addresses this point. How could he not? His programme not only begins and ends with references to violent acts (either past or imminent), but references to it run throughout the entire forty-seven minutes. Phillips begins, ‘There are many opinions swirling around as to why some Muslims would support violence against their own country -’ hold on a moment. Where has this come from? There has been no reference to Britain in the questions they have shown us. Could the former Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (previously the Commission for Racial Equality) be misrepresenting data to discredit a minority community in Britain? I grew up with Trevor Phillips. He was the face of tolerance and a shared humanity against stereotyping and slurs. This simply isn’t possible.
Phillips’ next question is nothing short of chilling. ‘But is there’, he asks, ‘any difference between the minority who sympathise with violence acts and the majority who don’t?’ Martin Boon is only too keen to ‘give us a handle on what they might be thinking’. Despite only 4-6% of respondents expressing ‘sympathy’ with ‘terrorist violence as part of the political process’, Boon feels able to extrapolate the following conclusions: ‘not believing that you belong to Britain, not having that emotional attachment is one thing that somewhat correlates with it.’ It is perhaps worth mentioning here, that 83% of respondents to this very survey answered yes to the question, ‘Do you feel you belong to Britain?’ In spite of this, Boon feels confident to assert that, ‘If, as a Muslim, you don’t have a desire to integrate into orthodox British society or indeed you want to practice a more fundamentalist Islamic lifestyle, or even submit to sharia law in this country, all of these things, all of these attitudes, to some extent explain why some people might move down that path towards violence.’
Cue Phillips’ call out for a policy of ‘active integration’, a ‘muscular approach’ that he believes will stave off the peril of this ‘nation within a nation’. We must abandon ‘live and let live’, he warns us – a policy that might otherwise be called tolerance and one could argue, is the very cornerstone of liberalism – and in its place ‘reassert the liberal values that have served our society so well for so long’. By this point, I’m ready for a gang of Active Integrationists to start flexing their muscles on the streets of Bradford, forcing residents to take tea with ‘non-Muslims’ living on the other side of town and demanding that they hang posters of British judges in order to prove their dedication to British legislature. But no, ‘active integration’ amounts to little more than capping ethnic intake of schools to 50% (without mention of any reform to faith schools) and obliging local councils to publish data on the ethnic make-up of social housing. Gosh. After watching forty seven minutes of What British Muslim’s Really Think, I was starting to believe we had a serious threat to domestic security on our hands. Phillips himself tells us that reversing the harm done is ‘something that may already be too late’. So is the solution really just to redraw catchment areas and get council tenants to fill out ethnicity questionnaires?
Far from gaining insights into What British Muslim’s Really Think, this programme reveals what Trevor Phillips Really Thinks, which is rather shocking. Elsewhere in the media Phillips claims multiculturalism is a failure. But on the contrary, even within the high-density, lower-income communities covered by this survey, 83% of those questioned feel they belong to Britain. The same percentage believe they are treated fairly within the British system. Far from indicating a failure of integration in Britain, these answers suggest it has been going pretty well. In fact, we should be proud of the integration we have here – and for that matter, of Trevor Phillips for playing an important role in making it happen. What the survey may have helped us to understand more fully, if it had chosen to, is how we could be doing better. One useful addition might have been to ask whether programmes like What British Muslims Really Think have an impact on integration that is positive or negative.
I can only assume the next programme Phillips will make with Paul Copeland and David Modell for Juniper will look at, let’s say, What British Hindus Really Think, or indeed, What British Jews Really Think, or perhaps What British Jamaicans Really Think. If they are intending to make a programme on What British Non-Muslim Women Really Think, I can be of no help whatsoever as the premise is so preposterous. But this British woman thinks that ending a tolerant attitude towards one section of British society will inevitably begin a slide into intolerance towards all communities. This is not an assertion of liberalism, it is a very worrying attack on it.