Friday, 8 May 2009

The problem with identity

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The new Gallup Coexist Index poll published yesterday, "A Global Study of Interfaith Relations:
With an in-depth analysis of Muslim integration in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom" (full PDF here) provided plenty for headline writers to get to grips with, and the breadth of information the poll provides is highlighted by the fact that the Guardian could report it under the headline "Muslims in Britain have zero tolerance of homosexuality, says poll", while The Times ran with "British Muslims have more faith in UK than Britons, study finds".

So what did the poll show? Comparing the attitudes, and economic circumstances, of both Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, France and Germany (in Britain they surveyed 500 non-Muslims and 1,001 non-Muslims), Gallup did indeed find that on issues of gender and sexuality, the Muslims polled in Britain were far less liberal than non-Muslims, as well as less liberal than their counterparts in France and Germany. So while 58 per cent of British non-Muslims said they find "homosexual acts" morally acceptable, 0 per cent of Muslims said they did, compared to 35 per cent in France and 19 per cent in Germany. Similarly, only 3 per cent of the British Muslims said they found sex outside of marriage acceptable, compared to 48 per cent in France.

At the same time, the poll reveals that British Muslims, as The Times chose to highlight in their headline, identify more with Britain and have more confidence in its institutions than the non-Muslim majority. 77 per cent of Muslims said they identify "very" or "extremely" strongly with Britain, compared to 50 per cent of non-Muslims, while 76 per cent of Muslims said they had confidence in the British judiciary, compared to 55 per cent of non-Muslims.

Meanwhile, the poll throws up some worrying statistics on the social and economic well-being of Britain's Muslim population. Asked to gauge their current standard of living, 21 per cent of British Muslims said they were "suffering" (a far higher figure than any other group polled in all three countries), while only 38 per cent said they were currently employed, compared with 62 per cent of non-Muslims.

So what are the implications of all this? Having just written our latest cover story on the impact of the government's policy for tackling radicalisation among Britain's Muslims, I read the results of this poll with great interest. For my article I visited my home town of Blackburn, Lancashire, which has a 20 per cent Muslim population, to find out how the goverment's Preventing Violent Extremism policy is being received locally. What I found ties in to both the issues of economic well-being and morality covered by the poll.

The news that Muslims are found to be less tolerant than non-Muslims towards issues like homosexuality comes as little surprise, but it certainly poses problems for social cohesion. Huge progress has been made on sexual tolerance in the past 15-20 years, and that is not going to be rolled back because of religious interests. But the fact that many Muslims might have a problem with that is something that will need to be dealt with through education and dialogue – there's no point taking a "deal with it or leave Britain" attitude (sounds a bit close to BNP-speak really, doesn't it?), while at the same time you can't simply dictate to Muslims from on high what they can and can't think. This was a problem I found some people in Blackburn had with the preventing extremism policy – when the government suggests widening the definition of "extremism" from something closely related to terrorism to something that could cover homophobia, or advocating Sharia, the policy, as the chairman of the local council of mosques told me, "has broadened so much that any activity you do could be taken as extremism."

What I found in Blackburn is that those working in the community feel that the government should place more emphasis on addressing issues of poverty, education and health, rather than on flagship schemes for tackling extremism. And this ties in with what the Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan argues in his new book How to Win a Cosmic War – Global Jihadists rely on creating a "master narrative" for disaffected young Muslims, in which "the global grievances to which they have been exposed are connected to the local grievances that they themselves experience every day". It therefore follows that if you can address those local grievances, you can break that link between local and global, you can reduce the likelihood of young people turning to extremism.

When I interviewed Aslan, he talked about the need for a strong sense of British national identity among Muslims, comparing their situation with that of Muslims in America, who are generally well-integrated and well-off, and we discussed the problems we have with national identity in this country – in short, no one even really knows what British national identity is. In this sense, the figures on identity from the Gallup poll are encouraging. If, as the results suggests, British Muslims identify strongly with British democracy, then the task of developing a coherent national identity might not be as difficult as many fear. At the very least, the fact that non-Muslims scored significantly lower in this respect highlights the fact that this issue of British identity is a problem for all of us and not just for ethnic minorities, as is often implied.


nullifidian said...

On a slightly tangential note (and probably something more for the main article) I think one of the problems with the whole anti-radicalisation shebang is that the gub'mint has what amounts to made an official declaration on islamic theology, i.e. "these interpretations of your scripture are allowed, but these ones are not, m'kay?" and are pushing it onto the very people who in turn could quite easily become (perhaps more) disenfranchised with British society and become the very thing the scheme is supposedly intended to curtail.

Not for one instant am I arguing that any interpretation of islamic (or any other) scripture is necessary a good idea, but I don't think it's HomSec Jackboot Jacqui's place to determine what people can and can't be allowed to believe.

Of course, should any of them act on their theological impulses to the detriment of the rest of us — say, for example, by strapping on a bag of fertiliser and making a nuicance of themselves on public transport — then these this sort of behaviour is already proscribed in law (and has been even before the 2001 ACS Act).