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‘A nation within a nation’

29th Apr 2016

The results of an ICM poll conducted a year ago about British Muslims were released this month, based on which the former EHRC Chair, Trevor Phillips, presented a documentary “What British Muslims really think” on Channel 4.

On the one hand, some praise should be given to the polling agency in conducting the largest ever survey of its kind in the UK, as over 1000 Muslims were interviewed face-to-face, albeit from more deprived areas where Muslims form more than 20% of the population. But Professor Sunghee Lee of the University of Michigan, who specialises in polling hard-to-reach minority groups, told the New York Times that criticism of the poll’s methodology was “unavoidable” due to a “mismatch” between the group of people interviewed and the national population to which ICM extrapolated the results.

And unfortunately a lack of acknowledgement of the understandable limitations of the poll was only the first of a series of monumental errors of judgement in Phillips’ interpretation of the poll results.
Phillips seems to have had a preconceived illusion of British Muslims being apart from the rest of society, and he tried to fit the data from this one poll to justify this assumption. For example, he misuses the data to dramatically claim that 100,000 Muslims sympathise with suicide bombings, based on a single datapoint (4% in the poll) ignoring the fact that a similar inference would mean that over 600,000 non-Muslims also sympathise with suicide bombings! Similarly, when appearing to be shocked by the 34% who would not report a friend involved in terrorism to the police, he fails to mention that actually non-Muslims were even less likely (30%) to report such an individual.

His central thesis is that British Muslims are exceptionally different to those of other faiths, but he does not recognise that the control group that is being used as a comparison, is not similar to the main poll of British Muslims: it was not a face-to-face poll, it was not in the same deprived areas and it was not with conservative faith communities. Yet he still tries to paint a picture without the data to prove it.

In fact, he seems to ignore the research that is already out there in the public domain – such as the 94% of British Muslims who would report someone involved in terrorism to the police (much higher than this poll), according to a separate poll by BBC Comres; or the fact that according to Professor Ludi Simpson, one of the leading experts on the census, British Muslim communities have actually become less concentrated in the last 10 years, unlike, for example Jewish communities.

In reality, if the poll is interpreted whilst acknowledging the limitations, whilst understanding the context and other research out there, and whilst understanding the basics of how polling works, a very different conclusion is reached. Whilst there are some areas, such as homosexuality or gender roles, where many British Muslims have strongly socially conservative views, often in line with those of other faiths, the poll also seems to corroborate previous research that almost all Muslims condemn all terrorist actions, are against stoning, oppose a caliphate, are not sympathetic to any kind of violence are not sympathetic to any kind of extremism, and are very loyal to the UK, more so than other communities.

It is a real shame that the opportunity to discuss this poll has been hijacked in this way, and it is no wonder that images of terror attacks acted as the backdrop to the programme. One can only hope that those who commission such pieces recognise the damage they cause when they mislead the public in this way.
When the Sun ran its front page “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for Jihadis”, for which it has since been censured by the regulator IPSO, the polling agency Survation issued an explanation distancing itself from this “interpretation”. It is high time that ICM does the same, if it wants to retain any credibility amongst many British Muslims.

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