Attitudes to Muslims

The year 2012 ended with the revelation that the Muslim community in England and Wales had grown by 75% between the 2001 and 2011 censuses of population. This basic demographic fact, combined with the increasingly prominent role and voice which Muslims have gained in national life and in the public square, seems bound to stimulate survey research measuring attitudes to them. And, indeed, the year 2013 starts with the publication of two sets of research findings on this very topic.  

Offending Islam

Violent demonstrations against the United States (US) took place in a number of Muslim countries last September, following the distribution on YouTube of the short anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, which had been made in the US. In a poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of the furore, but only just released, 24% of Britons agreed that the makers of the film ought to have been prosecuted by the US authorities for committing a hate crime, with 40% opposed to such action, and 36% uncertain. Support for prosecution was strongest among the over-60s (31%), Londoners (30%), Liberal Democrat voters (29%), and Scots (28%).

Opinion was also split about the subsequent publication, in direct response to the anti-American protests, by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad naked in front of a film director. One-third (33%) of Britons supported the magazine’s decision, as a defence of free expression, 35% criticized the publishers for causing unnecessary offence to Muslims, and 32% expressed no views. Charlie Hebdo’s greatest supporters were found among men (44%), Conservative voters (42%), and the 18-24s (41%); its greatest detractors among the over-60s (49%).

The potential tensions between free speech and religious sensibilities were explored in five more generic questions. Majorities of adults endorsed four of these statements about what should be legally allowed in Britain: saying a religion threatens world peace (60%), saying a particular religion is nonsense (59%), saying the founder of a particular religion never existed (56%), and producing visual images of the Prophet Muhammad (53%). The only statement to be approved by a plurality but not a majority of respondents was saying or printing insults about the founder of a particular religion; while 41% agreed that this should be allowed, 33% objected (14% to 18% more than to the other statements). The proportion of ‘don’t knows’ ranged from 22% to 31%, dependent upon the question.

Across all five statements, men, non-manual workers, Scots, and Conservative voters were consistently more likely to agree that the various activities should be lawful. The over-60s and Londoners were most prone to querying their legality. Since the explicit and implicit context of the entire survey was about causing offence to Muslims, the relatively pro-Islam stance of the over-60s is interesting since, on many other measures of attitudes to Islam and Muslims, this age cohort often holds the most negative views. Clearly, their position is tempered by a general sympathy for people of faith and by a sense that respect and tolerance should set appropriate limits on freedom of speech and expression; doubtless, there are also fears that mocking of Christianity might follow in the footsteps of lampooning Islam. The views of Londoners are readily explained by the fact that (as confirmed by the 2011 census) the capital is now the most diverse part of the country in terms of nationality, ethnicity, and religion, with a notable concentration of Muslims.     

Source: Online survey by YouGov among 1,710 Britons aged 18 and over on 30 September and 1 October 2012. Full results released on 7 January 2013 and available at:

Integration of Muslims

Attitudes towards the integration of Muslims in British society are fairly evenly balanced, with 38% of adult Britons agreeing that Muslims want to ‘fit in’, 39% disagreeing, and 21% neutral. However, these results are not uniform across three sets of sociological, religious, and political-ideological independent variables, which have been newly investigated through two multinomial logistic regression models.

For sociological variables, no significant effects were discovered for ethnic group or age, and only a relatively weak influence for gender (women being more prone than men to take a neutral position). Yet education was significant: those with a degree-level qualification were more likely to offer a neutral response or to agree that Muslims want to fit in than disagree, compared to those with no qualifications.

Religious affiliation (denomination) had little impact overall, and frequency of attendance at religious services was not significant in terms of the fuller of the two models. But religious salience (measured by the importance attached to religion in daily life) did make a difference. Higher levels of religious salience increased the likelihood of respondents agreeing that Muslims wanted to fit in, thereby providing some support for the ‘solidarity of the religious’ thesis proposed by Joel Fetzer and Christopher Soper.

Several (but not all) of the political-ideological factors were found to have statistically significant effects. In particular, a socially authoritarian disposition was associated with negative perceptions of Muslim integration, as was anti-immigrant bias. Similarly, those with traditionalist or exclusivist views of the role of Christianity were less likely to think Muslims wanted to fit in. On the other hand, individuals who took a pro-religion line on the wearing of religious dress or the banning of religiously offensive material were more likely to give neutral responses or to agree about Muslim integration.

Source: Ben Clements, ‘Explaining Public Attitudes towards the Integration of Muslims in British Society: The “Solidarity of the Religious”?’ Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 28, No. 1, January 2013, pp. 49-65. The article is based on secondary analysis of one specific question (‘Do all Muslims living in Britain really want to fit in?’) posed to sub-samples A and B (n = 2,250) of the British Social Attitudes Survey of June-November 2008. Abstract and access options for the full text of the article can be found at:


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