Numbers mislead

Public opinion polls that purport to expose Islamist attitudes among British Muslims should not be taken at face value.

Recently I passed two days in the company of a Muslim taxi driver and his brother, who drove me around the south of the West Bank. At first both men expressed unreserved anger at Israel for everything from the "imprisonment" of the people of Bethlehem, through the construction of the "the wall," to the dire state of the economy. However, the more I spoke to the driver about the situation, the more I picked up on a definite sense of envy that he harbored toward Israel, not because of its superior strength, but because of the rights Israelis have to fair trials and humane sentencing, and the right to freedom of speech. He said that Palestinians live in fear that if they criticize the Palestinian Authority too openly they could be abducted, or a rumor would be spread that they are traitors. Any survey of Palestinians asking which administration they would prefer to live under, Israeli government or Palestinian, will always show overwhelming support for the PA. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that, privately, many prefer the greater freedom Israeli rule offers. The polls are essentially useless in gauging genuine attitudes because people are swayed by their desire to make political points against the humiliation that the occupation causes. IT IS WORTH considering that a similar point was being made when 40 percent of British Muslim youths claimed in a recent Policy Exchange poll that they would rather live under Shari'a law than British law; 36% said they thought apostasy should be punishable by death, and 72% said they believed the veil should be worn in public. If we accept that these figures reflect sure and steadfast opinions, they are certainly alarming. The difference of only 4% between the first two figures shows that almost all of those who support Shari'a law do so in its most uncompromising form. But what evidence do we have to suggest that these remarkably high figures are not, in large part, an emotive reaction against the current British political establishment? In the Muslim community there is a growing feeling of victimization, termed "Islamophobia," which has stemmed from the "war on terror." Its significance has often been encouraged by the left-wing press and exploited by publicity-seeking politicians. It has led to wide belief in conspiracies regarding 9/11 and most recently the Birmingham kidnapping plot. AS I often saw in Palestine, a psychology of victimization can lead people to pull up the drawbridge and unquestioningly defend their own traditions, regardless of whether they actually support them. The posters which cover the walls of Palestinian towns exalting the deeds of murderers show that in its extreme there are no bounds to the sense of denial this psychological state can reach. Evidence which suggests a great deal of knee-jerk reaction to the political climate in Britain among Muslims can be found in a Guardian ICM poll of 2004. It claimed to show that Muslim support for Labor has halved since 2001. The article which accompanied this survey put this down to "the role of Britain in the Iraq war and Prime Minister Tony Blair's strong support for the war on terror which is widely seen by the Muslim community to be an attack on Islam." But it is quite impossible to reconcile this view of a government which attacks Islam with one which has continuously invested in schemes such as the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant. In fact many British political commentators are concerned at exactly the opposite: that the government is not doing enough to take on the fundamentalists who are arising in parts of the Muslim community. Yet the British government's lack of imagination in trying to tackle this perception is bewildering. In a recent speech on racial equality Communities Minister Ruth Kelly failed to confront the issue at all. Instead she chose to tread the well-worn path of saying how multiculturalism only needed "updating," and how there was always a need to respect other people's beliefs, or lack thereof. UNFORTUNATELY the government's fear of being perceived as "racist" means it is terrified to criticize the vilest behavior when it comes from inside the Islamic community. A recent Dispatches program on Channel 4 showed secretly recorded footage of Islamic clerics claiming "kaffir (unbeliever) is the worst word that can ever be written, a sign of infidelity, disbelief, filth, a sign of dirt." This did not draw comment from the cabinet. At the same time, when a native English contestant on a reality TV show called her Indian housemate "Shilpa Poppadom‚" both the prime minister and the chancellor rushed to denounce it. But perhaps we should be a touch sympathetic given the hyperactiveness of the left-wing press, with whom the Iraq venture has been so deeply unpopular from the outset. Cabinet minister Jack Straw got himself in hot water last year when he mentioned that when he has his constituency office hours he encourages women who wear the veil to take it off so he can communicate with them better. This seemingly inoffensive suggestion led to endless "it is Islamophobic, isn't it?" speculation in the press. All this confusion among the liberal establishment delights the populists and extremists. On the Left the leader of the Respect party, George Galloway, has reportedly insinuated it is "morally justifiable" for a Iraqi to assassinate Tony Blair. On the far-Right the British National Party (where hatred of Muslims does exist) are saying that Labor is ignoring the white working classes. Clearly what Britain needs is more honest self-criticism in the government, press and the Muslim community. Only then, if ever, will a sense of trust and perspective be restored. Muslims are rightly angry at Blair's insistence on emphasizing the humanitarian benefits of the Iraq war. This viewpoint cannot help but imply a callous lack of concern for the many thousands of civilians who have died there. Blair will soon be gone. Perhaps his successor will admit that the Ciceronian ideal of liberal imperialism is hopelessly outdated in this age of fierce support for autonomy and the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare. But if the myth of Islamophobia is ever going to be destroyed, it is the moderate leaders of the Muslim community who will achieve it. They should be more vocal in dissecting the conspiracies of worldwide Islamic oppression by stressing the difference in the lot of Muslims at home and abroad. More recognition that it is Muslim sectarianism in Iraq that has led to such wholesale massacre would also be helpful. The liberal press too must be more evenhanded in how it monitors these two groups. The Muslim peer, Baroness Uddin, tried to explain the figures in the Policy Exchange poll by saying "some people have been brutalized by their experiences with the police and this war on terror." Such emotive nonsense should be criticized rather than passed up without comment. If we believe that someone has a right to choose his own religion, we do so because we believe there is a universal benefit in freedom of expression. Therefore we must also believe that with the correct form of political socialization every British citizen has the potential to appreciate both his heritage as well as the values of our larger society. The writer, a British citizen, is a Jerusalem Post intern.