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Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

S for Surveys

The recent Guardian front page headline "British Muslims want Islamic law and prayers at work" (30th November 2004) juxtaposed two separate issues - the controversial one of shariah law, with that of arrangements to perform salaat at work. The source: a Guardian/ICM poll of 500 British Muslims, by telephone, in which "some 61 percent wanted Islamic courts operating on Shariah principles so long as the penalties did not contravene British law".

The issue of prayer is being tackled up and down the country in a reasonable and accommodating manner - take the case of IKEA in West Yorkshire or the Met Police Force or the many large financial institutions in the City of London. Implementation of the shariah law in the UK is not a priority. It finds no mention in either of the two policy manifestos issued by representative Muslim institutions - 'Election 1997 and British Muslims', issued by the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs' and 'Electing to Listen - promoting policies for British Muslims', published by the Public Affairs Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain in 2000.

However the Guardian spin was taken up by Nicholas Hellen in the Sunday Times, in an article that referred to "Muslim leaders who have been campaigning to incorporate shariah into British domestic law" (26th December 2004) - needless to say without naming any representative community leader. Mark Steyn then used it to launch a familiar attack against "the modern multicultural state" in his article 'Polygamy? It makes good tax sense' (Daily Telegraph, 28th December 2004). So about 300 telephone responses led to a sensationalist headline casting 1.6 million British Muslims in terms that have provoked Islamophobic responses.

Amongst the more interesting recent social surveys have been those examining the continued place of religion in the lives of people:

  • The 2001 Census - as perfect a survey as is possible because it includes everybody in the UK on a particular day - found that the vast majority considered themselves affiliated to one of the main faiths. The religion tick boxes - the only voluntary question in the Census Form - were completed by 40 million out of a population of 52 million. The number stating 'No religion' was under 8 million.

  • A Home Office study published in March 2004 'Religion in England and Wales: findings from the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey (Home Office Research Study 274) using data from 15,000 interviews, including 5,460 from the ethnic minorities, found that for 23% religion was considered important for their self-description.

  • The Daily Telegraph's post-Christmas YouGov poll has found that about 40% believed in one God and 43% in life after death in a sample size of 1,981 adults (The Daily Telegraph, 27th December 2004).
  • Of course these quantitative studies need to be carefully nuanced and supplemented by qualitative research that brings out the stories of actual people, like the case of Professor Antony Flew who recently abandoned his atheism for a belief in God.

    Three surveys have contributed to the public policy debates on religious discrimination:

  • The ground breaking work in terms of using religion as a statistical marker was conducted by Tariq Modood in 1994 while at the Policy Studies Institute - 'Ethnic Minorities in Britain, Diversity and Disadvantage'. Modood challenged the social statistics community: "there has been virtually no research on religious discrimination in Britain, nor on how perceptions of religion and race interact to create distinctive forms of prejudice (e.g. stereotypes about 'fundamentalist Muslims') and discrimination". The PSI study was based on interviews with 5,196 people of Caribbean, South Asian and Chinese origin and 2,867 white people (surveyed to provide a comparison), making it a invaluable dataset for a decade
  • The 'Derby' study in the late 1990s ('Religious Discrimination in England and Wales', Home Office Research Study 220, 2001), based on an analysis of 628 responses by 20 faith groups to a postal questionnaire. It concluded that of all faith groups, Muslims 'perceived' themselves to be most subject to discrimination. However it did not seek any follow up with employers - for example whether their workforce reflected local diversity.
  • In July 2004 a survey conducted by the BBC provided evidence of employer bias (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3885213.stm). CVs from six fictitious candidates - who were given traditionally white, black African or Muslim names - were sent to 50 firms by Radio Five Live. All the applicants were given the same standard of qualifications and experience, but their CVs were presented differently. White "candidates" were far more likely to be given an interview than similarly qualified black or Asian "names". All the applicants were given the same standard of qualifications and experience, but their CVs were presented differently. Almost a quarter of applications by two candidates given traditionally "white" names - Jenny Hughes and John Andrews - resulted in interview offers. But only 9% of the "Muslim" applications, by the fictitious Fatima Khan and Nasser Hanif, prompted a similar response.

    A number of Muslim organizations too have ventured into survey work:

  • An early effort was made by the National Interim Committee on Muslim Unity (NICMU) in 1995/96 which investigated the need for a representative umbrella body - that later took the form of the Muslim Council of Britain. This was a postal questionnaire dispatched to 2000 community leaders and activists and yielded a response rate of 15%. The wide-ranging responses provided a basis for key features of the Constitution of the MCB and its programme of work.
  • In 2002 the Islamic Society of Britain commissioned YouGov to survey 'Attitudes to British Muslims' (1,890 respondents). Amongst its conclusions was the finding that many British people viewed British Muslims in a more suspicious light after the events of Sept 11 2001 and that 74% of Britons said that they knew 'nothing or next to nothing about Islam'.(1)
  • More recently the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (IHRC/JRF) obtained 1125 responses in a study on discrimination facing the community. Almost 80 percent of respondents felt they had been discriminated against because of their faith, although the majority (55%) felt this was only on some occasions (The Guardian, 16th December 2004).
  • Social science surveys need to reflect good practice - for example in terms of sample size and sample selection. Respondents should be selected randomly and independently. A US corporation, interested in exploring how Muslims donated to charity, recently awarded a grant for this work to a Muslim professor in a university based in Glasgow. The empirical data for the research has included the distribution of a questionnaire to an audience leaving a Hamza Yusuf lecture! Perhaps there ought to be a survey of sloppy surveys.

    The politics of surveys are just as important as surveys of politics. In December 2003, the European Commission released a poll showing that most Europeans (59% in a sample size of 500) considered Israel a threat to world peace. The question has not appeared in the repeat poll conducted in December 2004. A spokesperson for the EC "said the sensitive question about threatening countries had been a once-off addition to last year's survey (Financial Times, 22nd December 2004). The EU buckled because of charges of anti-semitism and "the ensuing tensions with Jewish leaders also cast[ing] a shadow on the European Union's ability to play a more active role in trying to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine".

    Two surveys provide a sobering assessment for Muslims:

  • A BBC/ICM poll in April 2004 (2) based on sample size of 510, indicated that almost two thirds of British people support indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects without charge. A similar figure supported extending such restraints to British terror suspects.
  • The Cornell University's 2004 Omnibus Survey in the US found that 44 percent said the civil rights of Muslims should be curtailed (sample size 715 interviews)(3)
  • 1)http://www.isb.org.uk/iaw/docs/SurveyIAW2002.pdf