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A polemic with facts to fit prejudices

22 April 2016

C4’s What British Muslims Really Think was alarmist nonsense, says Paul Vallely

WHAT British Christians really think”: suppose Channel 4 wanted to commission a programme with that title, where would it go to survey Christian opinion: Spring Harvest, the Latin Mass Society, a Black Pentecostal church, the General Synod, a Catholic Charismatic gathering, a cathedral congregation, an ordinary parish church (supposing that they could satisfactorily define “ordinary”)?

Satisfactory definitions lay at the heart of the dangerously tendentious Channel 4 programme What British Muslims Really Think, broadcast on Wednesday of last week. It was billed as “a rigorous survey”, but it came across as a polemic that selected facts to fit prejudices rather than a piece of responsible journalism. TV bosses must have known what they wanted when they chose as its presenter Trevor Phillips, the former equalities tsar, who has previously warned that Britain is “sleepwalking to segregation”.

The film was based on a poll that proclaimed that half of Britain’s Muslims think that homosexuality should be illegal, 39 per cent think that “wives should always obey their husbands,” a quarter want to live under sharia law, and four per cent sympathise with terrorism.

This was not, however, a poll of Muslims in Britain, as it had been billed, but a survey of 1081 people in areas where at least one fifth of the population are Muslim. Such areas, as the Muslim Council of Britain said, are home to a population that is poor, marginalised, and originates from strongly conservative cultures in rural Pakistan and Bangladesh which have traditions of polygamy. It was like basing a poll on what British Jews really think on a sample drawn from Stamford Hill in London.

To have conducted a truly representative poll of British Muslims — venturing into areas where Muslims mix with the rest of the British population — would have been far more costly. But budget was not the only problem.

Mr Phillips appeared to be looking for negative findings. It was “alarming”, he said, that only 34 per cent of the Muslims who were polled said that they would report to the police someone who supported terrorism in Syria. And yet, in the survey’s nationwide control group (taken from randomly selected people of all or no faiths), the figure was almost as high, at 30 per cent. Mr Phillips extrapolated the 34 per cent to claim that, nationwide, “100,000 Muslims had sympathy for terrorist acts.” But he neglected to point out that, according to the poll, so must 600,000 non-Muslims.

Then there was the film’s dramatisation of the polling. It repeatedly showed a hijab-wearing Muslim woman interviewer, in make-up, short skirt, and high heels, interviewing only a sullen truculent young Muslim man. The subliminal message was clear.

And there was an odd decontextualised quality to some of the individuals who were quoted in reply to questions that we did not hear. One of the interviewees, Anjum Anwar, the dialogue development officer at Blackburn Cathedral, complained afterwards that she was never told that Mr Phillips was to be the presenter. She would never have appeared if she had known, she said.

None of this is to say that there are not real issues to address within the Muslim community. There are problems of misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, as well as those of marginalisation and alienation. But alarmist nonsense such as this from Channel 4 will make the problem only worse.

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