6 Things Wrong With Trevor Phillips Latest Crusade 12 April 2016

sunhlI genuinely can’t remember the last time there was a single week without a headline story about Muslims. Sometimes, its unavoidable. With global crises like Syria, the post-war mess in Iraq, and acts of terrorism – headline news is expected. But other times, it’s engineered. Like the non-story of Ramadan exam timetables, or the non-story of halal hysteria, or the Sun’s misleading ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy with jihadis’ frontpage (which they had to offer an apology for).

This week, it’s Trevor Phillips. He’s come to tell us ‘What British Muslims Really Think’. Thanks Trev, but no thanks. I, and other British Muslims, can quite confidently and competently express ourselves. Note the word really too, which gives off the air of Muslims hiding their true intentions and nature, almost like a subversive fifth column. Trevor Philips latest Channel 4 documentary reeks of a particular kind of condescending and dog-whistle sensationalism, and as many others have pointed out over the past day alone, it’s full of problems. Rather than re-invent the wheel, here is a recap of what Trevor gets wrong.

1)      The Survey Doesn’t Actually Talk Directly To Muslims

Writing in the Sunday Times (£), Trevor remarks that: –

“Too often, this section of society is spoken for by self-styled community leaders, or interpreted by academic experts. What’s different about this survey is that it reveals British Muslims speaking for themselves.”

First, there are very few self-styled community leaders left. The last of them are perhaps the media pundits. In the last decade, British Muslims have invested heavily into self-organising. They now have elected bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain or the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, established religious authorities, such as the Bradford Council of Mosques or the Imams Online, and public interest groups, such as Mend. No organisation speaks for all Muslims, but the landscape is diverse, and the trope of the self-styled community leader is out of date.

There is also an irony here. Muslims have been polled, polled and polled again, with sometimes hugely different results each time. Polls are not some magic trick to finally let Muslims speak for themselves as Trevor puts it. In fact, as the Sun’s frontpage proves, they can be just as easily manipulated for other purposes. And it’s what Trevor has done here. Trevor will get lots of airtime, lots of coverage, a nice paycheque, and go home. Whereas the damage is to British Muslims, who once again are spoken about, instead of spoken with, and it is they who must live with the consequences.

2)      The Survey Doesn’t Tell Us What British Muslims Really Think

Trevor claimed that the poll conducted by the ICM is the “most revealing” ever conducted. Except it isn’t. There’s a glaring methodological fault in the construction of the survey. As Yahya Birt has pointed out , the survey only polls those Muslims living in areas with a 20% Muslim concentration or higher. He writes: –

“That said, the top line conclusion is that whichever geographic unit has been used for the sample would only be representative of a significant minority (ranging from between 29% and 47% of the Muslim population of England and Wales). This is likely to skew the findings as this poll did not sample the majority who live in areas with less than 20% of the population being Muslim.”

Good polling has to be weighted correctly. This poll isn’t. So it can tell us (with some skepticism) what Muslims living in largely deprived inner-city areas with high Muslim populations think, but those can’t be extrapolated to the entire British Muslim population. The views of a white British Christian living in inner-city Glasgow are likely to be different than the views of a white British Christian living in Chipping Norton. The same goes for British Muslims. Take it into account also, that entire ethnicities of Muslims were largely ignored as the survey focused on Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

I’m sure you can begin to see how terribly skewed the actual results are. Does it indicate that certain Muslims are conservative? Probably. Does it indicate these views are universal? No.

3)      When Weighted Correctly, What British Muslims Really Think Doesn’t Differ That Much From What Others Think

Polls, ultimately, can’t actually reveal that much about controversial issues. Dr Maria Sobolewska, an academic specialising in the area, argues that she “can say with certainty that public opinion polls have no value for estimating the number of prospective and likely extremists and terrorists.” The reason being that Muslims’ responses to questions about controversial issues (in her case, extremism) were “mostly an artefact of what they get asked and that the non-Muslims answer similar questions in a similar fashion”. Mend published a well researched rebuttal to Trevor’s ICM survey showing exactly that. In particular, they quote from Dr Linda Woodhead’s research on attitudes amongst religious groups to show that Muslims are not so much different from Christians in terms of their social attitudes, though sometimes more conservative. In particular, they write: –

“Moreover, a YouGov poll in January 2016 revealed a greater proportion of Evangelical Christians than Muslims saying same sex marriage was “wrong”, 63% to 52%, and among all faith groups, Muslims were the most likely to answer “unsure” (34%) suggesting that views on homosexuality are not black and white or entrenched.”

So Christian and Muslim views towards same-sex marriage aren’t that different. I absolutely believe there needs to be more dialogue between LGBT+ groups and faith groups. But Trevor’s argument of Muslims forming a “nation within a nation” aren’t reflected in this statistic, the contrary in fact. When surveyed, Muslims and non-Muslims tend not to differ incredibly. And the same applies to the current ICM survey – see these following tweets for an example.

So while there are differences, (@JamieJBarlett points to one in particular), these aren’t the type of radical differences Trevor indicates, nor are they entirely reliable as indications of prevalence of views. Rather than being a “nation within a nation”, Muslims share much with their neighbours of other faiths and none.

4)      The Survey Lacks Literacy

I’m a social scientist, but an ethnographer rather than a pollster. Perhaps because I never learned my times tables, I don’t enjoy numbers, and I find polls and surveys suffocating. They never capture nuance, and the ICM survey is no exception. Take for example this ridiculous interpretation by Trevor of a loaded question on sharia: –

“A quarter supported the introduction of sharia law in parts of the UK — presumably those areas where they thought Muslims constitute a majority — instead of the common statute laid down by parliament. Allah’s law, apparently, need take no heed of democracy.”

Academic Stephen Jones is equally suspicious of such questions, telling me on a previous occasion:

“The question that really annoys me is about whether or not Muslims support ‘Sharia’. This is routinely used to imply that large numbers of Muslims in Britain support the replacement of British democracy with theocracy. The problem here, which religiously illiterate polling companies don’t recognise, is that for many Muslims Sharia means something akin to ‘God’s path’, and so they don’t want to reject the notion entirely. That doesn’t mean, though, they have any interest in the kind of political system advocated by groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir.”

Sharia, for many, is about worship, being good to your neighbours, taking care of your parents, and in terms of ‘introduction of sharia law’, has more to do with marriage and divorce than caricatures of sharia inspired by Isis, Iran or Saudi Arabia’s violent penal system. Here’s an example. When I was married, it was a sharia marriage. And it took me 6 long years to get round to sorting out the civil marriage. When it comes to relationships and family, much like other religious groups, Muslims are more concerned with being married according to God than the State. Trevor is wrong to equate this to an aversion to democracy, and the survey is flawed to frame it as an either/or with British common law.

5)      Trevor Isn’t An Anti-Racism Stalwart

Much of the credence given to Trevor Phillips comes from his work at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. But this shouldn’t give him a free-pass at making generalisations and divisive comments. He once claims Muslims are “not like us” (presumably, Muslims aren’t included in the ‘us’ he uses, which itself is revealing of Trevor’s views). More recently, he writes “Muslims basically do not want to participate in the way that other people do”. These conclusions are neither borne out of his survey findings, and they write off the successful examples of British Muslim engagement. As Miqdaad Versi writes in the Guardian: –

But when there are 13 Muslim MPs, a British Muslim candidate for mayor of London, a Muslim dragon in the Dragons’ Den, and a Muslim winner of the Great British Bake Off, it seems that in reality, Muslims are very much part of British society.

Trevor uses the language of division and race-baiting. If it came from a member of Ukip, it would rightly be challenged. It coming from a self-described anti-racism campaigner doesn’t mean it should be left unchallenged.

He even went as far as to claim he “played a principal role in the creation of UK laws against religious discrimination — and it was a report that I commissioned exactly 20 years ago that first introduced the term Islamophobia to Britain.” This is outright denied by those involved, such as Khalida Khan who argues emphatically that “Robin Richardson and Kaushika Amin were behind the Report not Trevor Phillips”, which was a consequence of Khalida and her colleagues’ work in the an-Nisa Society.

Much of the weight of the Trevor Phillip’s sensationalism comes from his former position at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a title he has essentially used to push his own agenda against multiculturalism, which leads us on to the next point.

6)      Integration Is A Two Way Street

Trevor lays the entire blame of ‘segregated’ communities in Britain on British Muslims, he writes in the Sunday Times that: –

“According to ICM, more than half mix with non-Muslims daily, probably at work or college — but 30% never translate that into a friendship that would take them into a non-Muslim’s house more than once a year. One in five never enter a non-Muslim home.”

First, you’d expect a lower degree of interaction in high Muslim areas than in others (see Point 2), but more importantly, integration is a two way street. Most areas with a high minority population are more to do with bounded economic choices and the ‘white flight’ phenomenon (in which wealthier white families move out from an area once there is a minority presence) than self-segregation. As Mend pointed out, a poll commissioned by Islamic Relief indicated that 39% of non-Muslims have had close contact with a Muslim. Integration comes from all members of Britain building bridges.

Trevor laments that unlike some other migrants, Muslims are not ‘gradually abandoning their ancestral ways’. This isn’t integration. This is assmiliation, and as a white Welsh Christian faith leader told me, assimilation isn’t “good for the Welsh” either. Trevor’s view is that diversity means uniformity. I, like many others I suspect, cherish and value the diversity I encounter in Britain.

So, thanks to Trevor Phillips and Channel 4’s poll, Muslims will be dominating the headlines for a few more weeks. Once again, Muslims are up for dissection in the court of public debate. Trevor’s comments are based on an unrevealing, methodologically unsound survey that does little more than confirm the prejudices of those who are convinced of a “Muslim problem”, and hamper the efforts of those who are seeking to actually address the challenges of 21st century Britain.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.