Academics, politicians and public policy makers have long been criticised for not talking to each other about socially relevant issues. On the one side, academics are often criticised for remaining aloof in their ‘ivory towers’, and failing to demonstrate why and how their research impacts upon broader debates. On the other, politicians and policy makers are often too busy to seriously engage with academically generated evidence.
It is mainly for this reason that I was thankful to the influential blog ConservativeHome for facilitating a debate between myself and Paul Goodman, about what is becoming an increasingly important trend in Britain, and indeed Europe more broadly.
The debate was triggered by an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago, which outlined why, in my view, Sayeeda Warsi was right to highlight the growing problem of anti-Muslim sentiment in modern Britain. I pointed to evidence of significant public hostility toward Muslims, anxiety over the role of Islam in society, and the absence of a rigorous debate over what is driving these trends, and what they mean for policy and practice.
The piece attracted a thought-provoking response from Goodman, former MP for Wycombe. Goodman has previously urged Parliament to confront anti-Muslim hatred and violence, highlighted the lack of data on this issue and made the case for why something needs to be done. Our points of disagreement, therefore, are slight. We both stress the importance of anti-Muslim sentiment, and are critical of those who gloss over or ignore this trend and its effects.
But the mini-debate still performed a constructive purpose, by shedding light on some more nuanced points that are often missed, yet which are crucial to tackling this trend. I won’t recycle all of the points here, as readers can follow the links and debate for themselves. Suffice to say that Goodman was critical of my heavy reliance on the (now cancelled) Citizenship Survey, my suggestion that it was ‘striking’ that anti-Muslim sentiment is proving durable and reaching significant levels, and some of my assertions concerning the social and political attitudes of Muslims.
In response, I elaborated on some of my original points, though in particular the importance of rooting this debate in reliable and representative data and surveys that are careful in the wording of their questioning. It has been all too easy for the tabloid media to jump on polls based on miniscule samples, and which employ poor questions. To support my point, I drew on the work of Maria Sobolewska of the University of Manchester, who has demonstrated how polls often paint a misleading picture about the attitudes of British Muslims. In contrast, when we look at more reliable and consistent measures and data we find a different outcome: Muslims endorse key aspects of democracy and feel they belong to Britain.
In a further and final response, Goodman reiterated the importance of drawing on a wide range of survey and polling evidence when exploring these trends. He also pointed to other sources of evidence concerning the relationship between religiosity and attitudes toward social and political issues.
As Goodman notes, the byways and highways of this debate are complex. But by creating space for debate, ConHome has played an important role in shedding light on them and also helping close the gap noted at the outset. Hopefully, the evidence cited and key discussion points raised will be covered in greater depth by an enquiry into these issues.