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Britain's Muslims through Trevor Phillips' looking glass

Instead of asking them what they really think this poll asked Muslims to help perpetuate a prejudiced narrative that already exists against them

This story starts way back before Channel 4 commissioned ICM to find out what British Muslims think.

It started a long time before the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) was funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to survey UK Muslims on their expectations of the government. It starts before the English Defence League targeted Harrow Mosque or indeed when the National Front and its various 1970s and 80s allies decided to lay into Britain’s communities of colour at the street level. This story starts with Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, and this is what he and Alice said:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

And so we start again, through the looking glass, as it were, where everything is upside down and back to front. The headlines scream "sharia law" again. ICM’s poll has been ‘interpreted’ by Trevor Phillips whose Sunday Times teaser before the show is broadcast is littered with words and phrases that many seek mastery of in their application to describe Muslims, and over which Muslims themselves have little or no control: "polygamy", "attitudes towards women", "validity of violence", "nation-within-a-nation" and "chasm opening between Muslims and non-Muslims".  The antidote to all of this horrible Muslimness conjured up by Phillips’ frantic imagery is, of course, "muscular integration".

Whilst the ICM poll itself is deeply flawed and biased in its choice of questions asked, it’s worth highlighting Phillips’ so-called analysis first. The spectre of a widening gap between Muslims and non-Muslims plays to a pre-existing paranoia hyped up by both right and left-leaning members of the commentariat.

Whilst poll after poll after poll (including this one), has highlighted the loyalty and affiliation Muslims feel to the UK, it matters not. Citizenship i.e. the right of belonging and the agency it confers, is always tantalisingly kept out of reach. If you don’t support the England cricket team, you fail. If you do support it, well, then you still fail, because of the chasm between your attitudes and that of the mythical non-Muslim majority, which apparently imbues enlightened and transformed attitudes towards gays, women, other minorities, and Team GB.

This hegemony of non-Muslimness is of course as much a fiction as the idea of Islam, Muslims and Muslimness that pervades social and political thinking currently. Say "sharia" and most Muslims think things like halal food, ritual ablutions, and obligations to pay alms. Scream "sharia" in a Phillips style op-ed and you invoke images of hand and head chopping of Christians a la Daesh or princesses a la Saudi Arabia, or both, depending how old you are. 

To justify the claim of "chasm", ICM, Phillips et al needed to ask samples across communities and assess just where everyone stands. Instead, we get critique based on anecdotes and random conversations instead of a serious attempt to analyse albeit highly flawed data. Attitudes towards homosexuality expressed in this survey would most likely be mirrored in many other minority communities, be they Orthodox Jewish, black evangelical or indeed within the different social and religious groupings of "white society". Ditto, women, marriage etc. 

What about white extremism?

Let’s assume that these findings are representative, the question that really needs to be asked, is, “So, what?” If integration means anything, then surely it is the right to be as miserable, irascible and sadly prejudiced as the next man, and that next man (usually a white, middle- or upper-class man) usually likes to live with his own. White enclavisation as the "Burnley project" expounded a decade ago not only exists, but is a highly negative force when it comes to shaping the attitudes of youth. That project did indeed make a comparison, between a school with a majority Muslim intake, a school with a mixed intake and a school with a high white intake. Their findings were indeed "shocking":

“The all-white school is unable by itself to overcome the entrenched white extremism that is mediated through the family, the peer group and the enclave… Enclavisation, however, assists the development of liberal and integrative attitudes among young Asian/Muslim people by providing an oasis of liberality in a strong and cohesive sub-community.”

Let’s just leave that there. On to ICM’s questions. Not only did they cover the now well-trodden anti-Muslm tropes on attitudes to homosexuality, women etc. but thrown in were questions on the Holocaust and the perceived power of the "Jewish community". Those latter findings haven’t been highlighted. Could it be that these views are the same as or maybe less horrifying than those espoused by co-citizens of whatever ilk?

This survey was not an exercise in asking Muslims what they really think. This was asking Muslims to help perpetuate the narrative that already exists against them.

Back in 2004, IHRC did ask Muslims what they thought, using a quantitative and qualitative method. From this survey of over a thousand Muslims, came six volumes looking at citizenship, discrimination, education, hijab, law and media. There was no single Muslim response on any issue, and the nuance and range and imagination of a better world were sometimes breathtaking, sometimes excruciating, but all based on a genuine conversation. 

That project was framed in terms of Muslims’ expectations of the government, because that’s what citizenship means, and that’s what integration surely inheres? The promise of reciprocal recognition.

This latest poll however starts at a different position, and it is indicative not just of how Muslims are treated but how people in the UK have no automatic right to recognition as a citizen. Lazy, benefit cheats, homophobic Muslims, complaining abuse victims, and the many more demonised outgroups all need to change, and according to Iain Duncan-Smith, Phillips, Stephen Fry et al, they must essentially be coerced to. 

As the Muslim example, however, has shown, policies to force them to give up their affiliations and beliefs are little more than forcibly assimilationist. Endless muscular laws and policies, from anti-terrorism legislation, the Prevent policy, the British Values agenda in schools etc. have simply stigmatised, criminalised, surveilled and policed Muslims into submission. Then again, we were all of us always British subjects rather than citizens.

Mastery of our self-definition will never be ours in this Britain. Maybe this is the meaning of the Phillips/Channel 4/ICM words we have all been missing. 

- Arzu Merali co-authored the six volumes of the British Muslim Expectations of the Government series. She is one of the co-founders of the Islamic Human Rights Commission. You can follow her on Twitter @arzumerali.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: Broadcaster Trevor Phillips presents a documentary looking into the attitudes of British Muslims to be broadcast on Wednesday 13 April 2016 on Channel Four. (Channel Four)