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ComRes Survey of British Muslims' attitudes for the BBC


1 March 2015

On Wednesday 25 February 2015 the main item on the BBC radio news was a survey of 1,000 British Muslims undertaken for the BBC by the polling organisation ComRes. I normally listen to BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme each morning. That day they had a number of slots devoted to the survey, including the prime 08:10 slot which was devoted to an interview with Baroness Warsi.

Baroness Warsi gave an excellent interview. In particular she emphasised that to save money this government had discontinued the National Citizenship Survey which had previously been run every two years about a decade. This surveyed both the white British population and all major ethnic minorities and therefore provided high-quality comparative data. Unfortunately in the absence of such data it was not possible to compare the ComRes findings with the attitudes of other minority populations in Britain.

I issued a tweet commending the interview which is embedded below.

Baroness Warsi good on @BBCr4today ~08:10. She stressed the need to reinstate annual Government citizenship survey of all UK communities.

— Mohammed Amin (@Mohammed_Amin) February 25, 2015

The full survey results

Given the level of media coverage the survey had received, I took my normal approach of getting the source information. The BBC News website had a page summarising the key results plus a link to the full survey findings which are a 28 page PDF document.

I found the full document fascinating.

Survey conducted by telephone

Something I did not focus on when I read the document on 25 February, but noticed while composing this website page is that it was a telephone survey.

While I do not plan or conduct surveys, I have extensive experience of responding to surveys both by telephone and face to face. This has led me to believe that telephone surveys have a greater risk of the respondent misunderstanding a question but proceeding to give an answer instead of seeking clarification from the interviewer.

My perception is that you are much more likely to ask for clarification in a face to face interview when you don't understand a question.

Page by page results

The results are set out in the form of a number of tables.

Tables 5 - 13

The first page of survey findings is actually page 5 which contains Table 5. It is very encouraging since 95% of respondents they "feel a loyalty to Britain."

Table 8 is somewhat less encouraging since 20% of respondents agree with the proposition “Western liberal society can never be compatible with Islam.” Although 72% disagree, the 20% response is much higher than I would have liked to see. When one looks at the age profile of respondents, the gender profile and the geographical profile, there is relatively little difference between the members of the sample.

Table 9 has 93% agreeing that “Muslims in Britain should always obey British laws.” While some might be concerned that 100% do not agree, before getting unduly bothered about the 6% who disagreed (1% answered “Don’t know”) I would want to have further information about their thought processes. For example Britain has a proud tradition of civil disobedience which could account for some of the respondents selecting “Disagree” for this question.

Table 10 offers the statement “The Muslim Council of Britain does a good job representing the views of Muslims”. While I ceased to belong to the MCB in June 2010 I regularly encounter members of the MCB’s leadership and suspect that they will be pleased to have 55% of the sample agreeing with this statement.

Table 11 offers “I feel that most British people don’t trust Muslims”. Only 35% of the sample agree with this statement which is encouraging given the level of negative news about Muslims promoted by some segments of the media.

Table 12 is somewhat more discouraging. It offers the statement “Britain is becoming less tolerant of Muslims”. 46% of the sample agree with this statement.

Table 13 is similar with 46% of the sample agreeing with the statement “Prejudice against Islam makes it very difficult being a Muslim in this country”. While this question is actually different from that on Table 12, it is no surprise that they received a similar response.

Table 14

Table 14 contains the most controversial questions. There are a number of different questions all of which begin with “Do you agree or disagree with these statements about cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad…?”

78% agree with the statement “It is deeply offensive to me personally when images of the Prophet Mohammed are published.” In my opinion there is nothing problematical about that response since people are free to be offended or not offended about any matter as they choose.

My own view about cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is set out in my pieces Maajid Nawaz and cartoon politics and My reactions to the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Much more troubling is the response to the next statement “Organisations which publish images of the Prophet Muhammad deserved to be attacked”. I was deeply dismayed that 11% of the sample agreed with this statement.

Table 16 breaks down the response and shows that there is no meaningful difference by gender; 11% of males agree and 10% of females. The variation by age may be significant. In the age range 18-34 10% agree, ages 35-44 only 7% agree while ages 45+ the agreement rate rises to 14%.

There is also a geographical variation with 11% agreement in the North, rising to 13% in the Midlands and falling to 9% in the South. From the media I have the impression that extreme views may be somewhat more prevalent in the Midlands; for example Birmingham was the location of the so-called “Trojan Horse” schools. Indeed looking at the geographical variation of other responses shows the Midlands as being somewhat more extreme than the North or South for a number of the questions.

Table 14 has another statement “Acts of violence against those who publish images of the Prophet Mohammed can never be justified”. While 68% do agree with this statement, it is disturbing that 24% disagree. (1% refused to answer and 6% responded “Don’t know”.)

Some of the responses to the other statements on Table 14 are much more difficult to interpret.

The next statement is “I have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris”. 27% agree with this statement. However the statement is very widely worded and one might answer "agree" simply from sharing a strong concern about the cartoons being published without in any way supporting violence. Accordingly I would want to probe beneath the responses to this question before allowing the 27% to concern me the way that the 11% and 24% responses to the two previous questions did bother me.

The next question on Table 14 offers even more scope for different interpretations of the responses. The statement is “I understand the motives of those who launch attacks in the name of Islam because the religion has been insulted”.

In the English language the word “understand” can mean “comprehend” or can mean “sympathise with” depending upon the context in which it is used. While 32% agreed with the statement, I have no way of knowing which meaning of the word “understand” they were applying when deciding upon their responses. To illustrate the point, while I utterly condemn the Paris attacks, my own answer to this question would be “Agree” because I do comprehend the motives of the attackers even though I have zero sympathy with them.

Similarly, the last statement on Table 14 is “I wasn’t surprised that the attacks in Paris happened”. 32% agree with this statement.

Again, I regard agreeing with the statement as a perfectly reasonable response. While the attack on Charlie Hebdo came as a bolt from the blue on the day, in another sense from knowing the history I was not in the least surprised that religiously motivated extremists chose to attack the cartoonists. That of course does not mean that I concur with the attack.

Remaining tables

Table 21 asks about lifestyle issues.

While there is a minority of 14% - 17% which "do not feel safe as a Muslim in Britain", would "leave Britain to go and live in a Muslim country if I could" and regards it as appropriate that "Muslims who convert to other religions are cut off by their family", a very large majority ranging from 77% to 84% disagree.

I am personally unconcerned by the 31% who "would like my their children to go to a Muslim state school if I had the choice."

While all four of my children attended independent secular primary and secondary schools, for 10 years my wife was the head teacher of the Manchester Muslim Preparatory School which is an independent Muslim primary school. If that school had been open when we were making our own primary school choices, it is possible, although by no means certain, that we might have chosen it for our children.

Table 26 also contains some disturbing answers. 11% of respondents agreed with the statement “I feel sympathetic towards people who want to fight against Western interests” and 5% disagree with the statement “If someone I knew from the Muslim community was planning an act of violence I would report them to the police”.

Also it is potentially troubling that 45% dissent from the statement “Muslim clerics who preach that violence against the West can be justified are out of touch with mainstream Muslim opinion”. However in the context of a telephone poll, I have some concern that a proportion of the respondents are likely to have been confused by the grammatical structure of this question when considering whether to "agree" or "disagree".

Conversely only 13% agree with “I would rather socialise with Muslims than non-Muslims” which is clearly enouraging.

Jewish Chronicle interview

That afternoon I was contacted by the Jewish Chronicle and gave them a telephone interview which lasted for about 25 minutes. In the interview I made many of the points which are written above since I went through the tables with the interviewer page by page while on the phone.

In particular I emphasised the point that Baroness Warsi had made about the discontinuance of the National Citizenship Survey which meant that comparative data about responses from other segments of the population was no longer available.

I also shared with the interviewer my perception that parts of the survey were quite encouraging (as indicated in my summary of the responses above) while the responses to some of the questions, particularly the 11% approving of attacks on organisations publishing the cartoons, were deeply troubling.

The Jewish Chronicle published an article on page 5 of the 27 February issue based on the interview. The article is also available on the Jewish Chronicle website. It is of course flattering to be described as a "Muslim leader"!

Obviously space considerations caused much of the interview to be left out of the published article. Despite the level of condensation involved, in my view the article is overall a reasonable reflection of the interview.

However the omission of my comments about the National Citizenship Survey and the discussion during the interview of the meaning of some of the questions creates the risk of some readers getting a distorted impression of my views. In particular:

Concluding comments

The Jewish Chronicle article is a very short one. To get a proper understanding of the survey, there is no substitute for reading all 28 pages of tables. It does not take long.

Similarly at least one reader of the Jewish Chronicle has already formed a mistaken understanding of my views of the survey responses, so I have written the above more detailed commentary which does not suffer from the Jewish Chronicle’s space constraints. The comments above are essentially the same as those I relayed to the Jewish Chronicle in the interview, although at that stage I had not noticed that the survey was conducted by telephone.


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