What does the latest BBC poll actually tell us about British Muslims?

A new poll for the BBC seeks to interrogate Muslim opinion in Britain on domestic and international matters. Outside of some cautionary caveats the data provides various and useful discussion points.

Of the 1,000 surveyed, 84 per cent disagreed with the question ‘Organisations which publish images of the Prophet Mohammad deserve to be attacked’ and 68 per cent agreed that acts of violence against individuals publishing depictions of the Prophet Mohammad is unjustifiable – even when a vast majority found the cartoons personally offensive.

Not an insignificant number (27 per cent or 272 people) registered ‘sympathy’ for the motivations behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. But to understand how we arrived at that figure is to look at the wording of the question:

‘I have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris’

The problematic phrasing of the question raises some questions: how do we quantify the measure of sympathy? Does sympathy translate in support for this act of terrorism? Or does sympathy and support exist in different spaces? Indeed, as highlighted above, some consider violence a justifiable means to the publishing of cartoons but a greater majority reject a violent response.

Similarly, when 32 per cent agreed that they understood the motivations behind those who launch attacks ‘in the name of Islam because the religion has been insulted,’ requires the same level of interrogation. Understanding a person’s motivation does not always equate to material support or justification for terrorism. In some cases, it may strengthen an individual’s resolve that violence in response to blasphemy is unjustified (or vice versa). A vast majority (85 per cent) had no sympathy for those fighting against Western interests. Half (49 per cent) felt clerics preaching violence against the West was ‘out of touch’ with mainstream Muslim opinion as 45 per cent disagreed.

A tiny minority (8 per cent or 84 individuals) admitting knowing a Muslim sympathetic towards individuals fighting for the terrorist groups ISIS and Al-Qaeda. But on the flip side, 94 per cent of Muslims surveyed would inform the police if someone they knew from their Muslim community was planning an act of violence.

Sympathy for terrorism is not exclusive to Muslims in Britain, research found similar levels among non-Muslims when asked similar questions, so the measure is not useful when viewed in isolation.

As Maria Sobolewska’s research found:

“So, what is the real, informative picture of Muslim public opinion on terrorism? To find out, I looked at the wording of all these questions and ran some of the same questions among a non-Muslim sample of British people (thanks to the kind support of YouGov) in 2011.

What I found was that what we receive as a true picture of what Muslims think is mostly an artefact of what they get asked and that the non-Muslims answer similar questions in a similar fashion. So 6% of my non-Muslim sample agreed that suicide bombings can be justified for reasons of Islamic terrorism: a copy of a similar question asked of Muslims, and which yielded comparable results.”

Without this context, headlines become inverted and overly focus upon the negative.

Domestically, loyalty to Britain (and its laws) was almost uniform (95 per cent and 93 per cent for the latter) but there is a tangible sense among many that the country is becoming less tolerant to their faith. Prejudice against Muslim left 46 per cent feeling that life in Britain is ‘very difficult’ for Muslims. Muslim women are more likely to feel unsafe in Britain (a perception that follows the previous Tell MAMA report). Though many would not consider leaving Britain.

British Muslims felt somewhat divided on the role of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) as a great majority (77 per cent) rejected the idea that Muslims who convert to other religions deserve to be cut off from their families. British Muslims overwhemingly want to socialise with non-Muslims and many consider themselves ‘practising’ in their religious beliefs.

So what do we learn from this latest survey? That Muslims are confident in their sense of religious and national identity. That many reject violence even when they feel personally offended by depictions of the Prophet Mohammad. Some more of the alarming findings require the context of analysis in relation to the framing of survey questions.