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'What British Muslims Really Think' is a step towards religious intolerance Mary McCool

Comment: Mary McCool argues for better understanding of religion in secular Britain.

Channel 4: Findings demonstrate an experiment gone wrong.
Channel 4: Findings demonstrate an experiment gone wrong. Glasgow Central Mosque

Suffice to say, my understanding of the Islamic faith has not been profoundly deepened by Channel 4's programme What British Muslims Really Think.

The channel aired the analysis by broadcaster and former equalities chief Trevor Phillips after it conducted 1000 face-to-face interviews with 1081 Muslims across the UK, as well as a "control sample" of 1008 people representing the country as a whole, on issues such as women's rights, homosexuality, violence and extremism.

Findings included:

  • 23% support the introduction of Sharia Law in the UK

  • 52% do not believe that homosexuality should be legal in Britain

  • 4% of Muslims sympathise with people who take part in suicide bombings

  • 31% think it's acceptable for a man to have more than one wife

Phillips wrote in The Sun: "The data shows what the polling experts call 'a chasm' opening between Muslims and non-Muslims on such fundamentals as marriage, relations between men and women, schooling, freedom of expression and even the validity of violence in defence of religion.

"And the chasm isn't going to disappear any time soon."

He also backed David Cameron's proposals for active integration of Muslim people, to combat the perceived segregated Islam life - for instance by encouraging Muslim women to learn to speak English.

For what was supposed to be the "most detailed and comprehensive survey of British Muslim opinion yet conducted", I found his conclusions a little perfunctory.

Especially when, after the 2011 census, The Muslim Council of Britain published that only 6% of Muslims were struggling with speaking English. Here are some other points of interest from that particular report.

  • 43% of Muslim full-time students are female

  • 20% of Muslims are in full-time employment (compared to 35% overall population)

  • 29% of 16-24-year-old Muslim women are in employment

Integration is happening, though perhaps not for long if non-Muslim in the UK conflate what is presented as a Muslim belief with what may well be inaccurate findings.

I have to make a point that many journalists will disagree with - the collection and presentation of Channel 4's data was flawed.

Viewers criticised the programme for allowing 1000 people to speak for the Muslim population of Britain, close to 3,000,000 at a 2011 census. Yet this size of focus group is widely regarded by statisticians as large enough to draw reasonable conclusions from.

STV for instance recently surveyed a total of 1002 people in Scotland asking whether they would vote for independence if another referendum were held.

But the control factor for that particular experiment was pretty easy to define - to qualify for that poll you simply had to be living in Scotland.

How do you define the set of Islamic beliefs for people living in Britain? Or for any religion that matter? What about the huge array of belief systems across Iranian, Saudi Arabian, Indonesian and central African Muslims?

In an interview with CNN on the controversial views of comedian Bill Maher, Iranian-American author and historian Reza Aslan called out the issues of tarring Muslim beliefs with the same brush. When confronted with the point that the Islamic faith condones the mistreatment of women through female genital mutilation (FGM), he reminds the reporter that "it is not an Islamic problem, it's an African problem."

On Bill Maher's assertion that FGM is a "Muslim country problem", Aslan continues: "That is impirically, factually incorrect. Eritrea has almost 90% FGM, it's a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75% FGM, it's a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim-majority states is FGM an issue."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1QfgDkFR5E | youtube

Of course, Channel 4's documentary identified that some British Muslims sympathise with views that are not cohesive with the law - but where was the breakdown in ethnic background? More to the point, to ensure issues were actually indicative of Muslim beliefs, should there have been 1000 Muslims interviewed from each strand of belief for comparison?

According to the last census, British Muslims identified with 11 different ethnicities, the majority of which were Asian or Asian British. Some claim the practice of Islam in Asian countries again allows for the mistreatment of women - certainly true in Iran and Saudi Arabia. But women have also been elected as political leaders in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto) and Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri).

Channel 4's data collection was flawed, not because the number of people interviewed were too few, but because the variables were not controlled - so the experiment was not fair.

My concern is that a possible misrepresentation of the facts may well lead to the perpetuation of Islamophobia - a term Phillips himself first popularised. Treating the wide variety of British Muslims as all the same is irresponsible. We have to stop using extremes to represent two factions within religious groups - such as extremists and progressives - for the sake of headlines.

In an increasingly secular society, religion thankfully does not trump the law. It is however a basic human right, much like freedom of speech - the latter of which has helped offend, challenge and hone my own religious beliefs.

If we choose to welcome a diverse cultural melting pot within Britain, we have to accept integration not just on our own terms. Our government needs to set a better example - not just by demanding migrants learn our language and customs, but by promoting conversation between different cultures.

A start would be to work closely with organisations such as the West of Scotland Regional Equality Council, making more acute efforts to understand the complex and diverse doctrines bubbling in our cultural melting pot.

http://wsrec.co.uk/ | default

Take an example from a Scottish national.

I define my religion as Catholic, but the Nicene Creed doesn't really do my fundamental beliefs any justice. I believe in God, I pray (sometimes), I attend Catholic weddings and funerals, I believe in evolution, I believe in loving your neighbour, I believe in the use of contraception, I irregularly celebrate Mass where I take part in the Sacrament of Communion, I firmly support the legalisation of marriage for all, I observe Lent and Advent and Father, it has been a good few years since my last confession - but I'm not sure I'll be back.

I've been called a hypocrite (by non-religious people), a bad Catholic (in jest), a cultural Catholic (which I'm not sure I understand) and disappointing (by family members).

If Channel 4 can find a singular definition for my belief system for a sequel on Christianity, the religious foundation on which Britain was built, I'll bow out.

Comment by digital journalist Mary McCool at STV. You can reach her at mary.mccool@stv.tv.

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