In the aftermath of the Woolwich attack, Islamophobia is firmly back on the radar of British politics. The increase in attacks against mosques and renewed support for far right groups have reminded us all of the need to think seriously about how to root out anti-Muslim sentiment and tackle misperceptions about Islam. Today, few serious commentators cling to the bankrupt idea that Islamophobia is not an issue, or is the product of overly sensitive British Muslims.
The fact that this does pose a major challenge is why, alongside Muslims and non-Muslims, I agreed to join the cross-government working group on anti-Muslim hatred, to ensure that this type of prejudice receives the same resource and effort as Britain’s earlier fight against anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism and homophobia, and that this work is anchored in the latest evidence. But if we are to win this fight, then we need to fight clever.
One problem that we face are unhelpful opinion polls, which either attempt to show the world how many Muslims sympathize with terrorists, or how non-Muslims don’t like Muslims. They might be driven by good intentions but they often inflame tensions and provide new ammunition to extremists. And worse, they are often not even accurate.
The latest is a poll by the BBC and Comres, presented under the headline, ‘Quarter of young British people do not trust Muslims’, with a picture of two Muslim women in full religious dress. The messages are familiar: a large chunk of young Britons do not trust Muslims; they think Britain would be better off with fewer Muslims; and say most Muslims have a negative image. The poll was quickly the top story on the BBC Newsbeat website.
Yet as with many polls it comes with problems, none of which stopped the BBC running with a headline that will be taken by extremists on all sides as justifying their narrative. On the far right, groups like the EDL will argue this shows young Britons recognise the ‘threat’ from Islam. On the radical religious fringe this will be used as evidence for why ‘Muslim’ and ‘British’ identities are irreconcilable, and that Muslims should not give their loyalty to a nation that offers only hate in return. In between these two poles are the moderate Muslim and non-Muslim majorities, who will quietly conclude that either they are disliked by a new generation of Islamophobes, or that perhaps there is a reason why they should not trust their Muslim neighbours. In short, this is not fighting clever.
Let’s consider the problems. Like most polls this is only a quick and dirty snapshot of public opinion, which was taken in the aftermath of the Woolwich attack and tells us nothing about how these views might have changed over time. It’s like the polls after 7/7, which hit the press claiming a decent number of British Muslims endorse terrorism. But the polls never bothered to see whether these views had changed over time, or compared them to others in society, and so it was impossible to know if only Muslims felt this way, or everyone did. Put simply, they were meaningless (but still dominated headlines).
The BBC poll similarly has no sample of the wider population, so we have no way of knowing whether these views are unique to the young Britons who were polled, whether they reflect the national trend, or whether they paint a more positive picture of a young generation who are more at ease with migrants and minorities than older Britons. My money is on the last of these three, and here is why.
In recent years researchers, including myself, have shown there is a sharp generational divide in British attitudes toward immigration, minorities and Islam. The most rigorous of these studies was carried out by Robert Ford, who tracked British attitudes over time to show how young people are less likely than their parents and grandparent to express prejudiced views. Others have shown young Britons are more at ease with homosexuality, less likely than their predecessors to hold authoritarian views and less likely to endorse ideas advocated by far right groups.
In our forthcoming book, Revolt on the Right, we extend this picture to show how young Britons are not only less prejudiced, but less Eurosceptic and less likely to view British national identity along ethnic lines. It is this evidence, which has been reviewed by experts and comes with much more reliable data, that should lead the debate, not an occasional poll with an irresponsible headline.
These generational differences reflect much wider trends that have been shaping British society: the fact that older generations have memories of Britain before mass immigration, have little contact with others from different backgrounds and did not benefit from wider access to university education. This picture is markedly different for young Britons: they know nothing other than a Britain that is in the EU and welcomes migrants, and frequently interact with people from different backgrounds. This is reflected in the BBC poll, although these figures did not make the write-up. Almost two thirds of 18-24 year olds interact weekly with someone from the LGBT communities, one in two interact weekly with a second-generation immigrant and about one in three are interacting weekly with EU and non-EU migrants. This interaction is key, as it has been shown to reduce prejudice and boost tolerance.
Young people are also more likely than older generations to have a university degree, and this matters. Indeed, in the BBC poll the idea that Britain would be better off by reducing the presence of religious groups had consistently less support among those who had gone to university. So why aren’t we having a debate about how to get more young people into university, rather than wondering about why only a small number don’t trust Muslims and other religious groups?
In fact generally the young people in the poll appeared at ease with immigration and Islam, but again this did not make the headline. Consider this; 25% of them saw immigration as the most important issue facing Britain, which was not only far below their worries over the economy but was also ten points lower than the national average at the time of the survey. Sure, young people were slightly more likely to say Britain would be better off if there were fewer Muslims, compared to other groups. But still, less then three in ten held this view and across all religious groups a large majority of young people showed little interest either way: they either thought it would make no difference, or did not know either way. We have always liked to shout about the negative trends in our society. But we also need to shout about the positive ones, too.
So, if we are going to explore these kinds of questions then we need to make sure that we do it properly, with good data and in a way that does not inadvertently legitimise the narratives of extremists. This means building stronger bridges between journalists, editors and researchers, and also discussing whether some polls and their press releases should be subject to some kind of peer review. In short, we need to take a more clever approach.