The Telegraph opinion column, April 12, 2016 - screen shot.When will the pollsters ever learn? The results of the recent ICM poll of Muslims in the UK (published earlier this month and broadcast on Channel 4, April 13) are not as groundbreaking as their promoters would like us to think and moreover display major flaws.
First, you do not draw a Muslim sampling without comparing to other religious groups. This is a flaw of most surveys conducted in Europe which compare a Muslim sampling to “non Muslims”. In these conditions, it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions since the Muslim/non Muslim divide is ideological not scientific.
Second, there is no revelation in this poll. Since at least the 2007 Gallup poll, we know that Muslims across Europe display conservative values on family life, sexuality and women, while at the same time expressing high levels of loyalties to the country of Europe to which they belong. Having conservative family views does not mean lack of integration. In the US, Christian fundamentalists display the same values but nobody would say that they are not socially integrated!
The issue in Europe is that Muslims are the only religious group that seems to hold on to these moral values in contrast to most Europeans who have less, if no identification to their religion and the moral prescriptions attached to it. In other words, the gap is not between ‘religious’ Muslims and ‘secular’ British but rather between the European and American contexts in which Muslims are living.
Across European countries, the level of self-declared religiosity in the general population is systematically much lower than among Muslim groups while, in the United States, this is not the case. The general context of religiosity and social legitimacy of religions in each country is the real discriminatory factor that must be understood to grasp the situation of Islam and Muslims in any country.
Third, this ICM poll revealed that more than half of Muslims rejected homosexuality. This is no revelation either. The World Value Survey has been showing this result across Muslim majority and minorities for more than a decade. The question then is: why are Muslims across the board more intolerant vis-a-vis homosexuality than other monotheistic groups? It is a very different angle to think that British Muslims are unique in their reprobation of gay rights.
The same nuanced approach has to be applied to any data on intolerance vis a vis women rights. It is misleading to think that the majority of Muslims in the UK or elsewhere want to confine women to the stifling status of Saudi women. Those are the minority. The majority across Muslim countries like in the UK are not opposed to women’s right to education, work, political participation. It is after all what the Islamic tradition prescribes. But women’s rights can be diminished in family life through their marriage and especially in a minority context, the divorce procedure, that remains a prerogative of the husband. Again, is this specific to Muslim men? Certainly not. After all, Jewish women in Europe and the US face the same ordeal and sometimes, rabbinical court can be less accommodating than Sharia courts in this domain.
Such systematic comparison with other religious traditions would also clarify the misunderstanding about Sharia. When Muslims claim access to it in Europe, this is not about making it the law of the state. It is about asserting their right to marry and divorce according to their religious prescriptions, which is a principle recognized in civil secular law, even if it is a challenge when it comes to preserving gender equality in all religions.
In sum, in order to effectively assess the religious situation of Muslims in the UK it is crucial to make sure that we do not blow out of proportion so called specificities that are actually shared across religious groups, especially when it comes to family and gender issues.
It is also important to not surrender to fear by seeing all manifestations of Islam, including the conservative ones as an indicator of terrorism. In the long term such a suspicion affects religious freedom for all religions.