Clive Field on Attitudes to Islam and Muslim Attitudes in Britain

Last week, the Institute for Social Change (where BRIN is based) hosted a seminar by Clive Field, who co-directs this resource and blogs here assiduously. The title was “Muslim Opinions and Opinions of Muslims: British Experiences”. Clive provided a historical overview of Islam in Britain, followed by a “survey of surveys”, and culminating in an exploratory analysis of a survey of British Muslims sponsored by Harvard and Manchester.

The growing salience of Islam shows up in the number and subjects covered by surveys. Before the late 1980s, Islam and Muslims did not feature per se in national surveys; where diversity was considered it was qua ethnicity and nationality rather than religion. Imposing a survey ‘quality threshold’, Clive found that 15 surveys on Islam and/or Muslims were carried out over 1988-2000, 7 of them in 1990. However, 154 surveys were conducted between 2001 and 2010.

Clive then surveyed the headline findings emerging from such surveys, arguing that

‘[t]here is extensive negativity towards Muslims but no absolute level of Islamophobia, nor are views necessarily consistent between questions’.

More specifically, 9/11 and 7/7 spurred negative perceptions of Muslims’ integration, loyalty and radicalism. Knowledge of Islam and Muslims has improved somewhat but is still limited, and appears mostly to derive from (negative) media coverage). While direct social contact has grown, over one-half of non-Muslim Britons have no Muslim friends, and negative attitudes correlate with lack of knowledge and social distance. Double standards appear prevalent: Muslims are heavily criticised for failing to integrate, and yet little effort is made to bridge the gulf between the Muslim and majority communities.

Looking at surveys of Muslims, the first was conducted by Harris in 1989. It is expensive to survey minority communities and particularly those which are linguistically diverse. This means that such surveys often make methodological compromises, particularly with regard to sample size, which is typically 500 (which limits further breakdown by age or other category). Nevertheless Clive found 39 surveys of adequate quality conducted between 2001 and 2010.

The headline findings from these indicate that Muslims are much more religious than non-Muslims in Britain, and stricter on most aspects of morality. The overwhelming majority are attached to Britain, but there appears to be some ambivalence regarding a perceived clash between British and Muslim values, and a sense that Islamophobia is growing in British society.

Clive then provided an overview of findings from the Harvard-Manchester survey of Muslims, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, and conducted over February-March 2009. It was designed to complement the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey where the number of Muslim respondents was too small for analysis of responses. Ipsos MORI ran the survey, providing a questionnaire in English, Sylheti and Punjabi and sampling output areas that had a population that was at least 10% Muslim.

Interviews were conducted face-to-face with 480 British Muslims aged over 18. 85% were South Asian, and 55% aged 18-34 (namely a young demographic profile). There were significant rates of non-response to sensitive questions (for example, on sexual morality), while complex questions such as the position of Sharia attracted a high rate of ‘don’t knows’.

Regarding the questions themselves, seven in eight reported that religion was extremely or very important in daily life, compared with 15% in the BSA 2008 survey. 82% reported that religion was very important to their sense of identity (BSA 16%) versus 55% for ethnicity (BSA 29%). Two-thirds reported that they were very or moderately spiritual (BSA 34%). 84% endorsed a literalist view of scripture (BSA 10%) and 44% creationism (BSA 14%).

Weekly attendance at services was claimed by 30% of those aged 18-34 and 50% of those aged 35 and over (BSA 10%). Praying at least several times a day was claimed by 45% of those aged 18-34 and 60% of those aged 35 and over (BSA 5%). Two-thirds reported that they read the Qur’an at least weekly, compared with 11% of the BSA sample reporting that they read the Bible or equivalent holy book. 71% reported that they observe Ramadan fully, and 17% mostly.

Headscarves worn (by the respondent if female or close female relative if the respondent was male) by 58% of those aged 18-34, and 77% of those aged 35 and over.

Regarding religion and personal morality, 75% reported that there are absolutely clear guidelines about what is good or evil (BSA 37%). 60% of those aged 18-34, and 78% of those aged 35 and over, reported that pre-marital sex was always wrong (BSA 8%). 58% of those aged 18-34 and 74% of those aged 35 and over regard homosexual acts as always wrong (BSA 30%). 45% of those aged 18-34 and 58% of those of 35 and over oppose legal recognition of same-sex relationships (BSA 26%).

Regarding the position of Muslims on religion in politics and society, 60% agree that religion is a private matter which should be kept out of public debates on socio-political issues (compared with 71% in the BSA). 54% disagree that it is proper for religious leaders to influence voting of individuals (BSA 73%). 45% report that religion is very or somewhat important in making decisions on politics (BSA 19%).

With regard to religious diversity, two-thirds acknowledge basic truths in many religions, compared with 74% of respondents to the 2008 BSA survey. 38% agree, while 32% disagree, that Britain is deeply divided along religious lines (compared with 52% and 16% in the BSA).

With regard to national identity, 58% reported that they “very strongly” belong to Britain and 29% “fairly strongly”. 57% support a greater role for Sharia courts. 22% of those aged 18-34 and 14% of those aged 35 and over reported experiencing Islamophobia during the two years before the survey period. However, 87% reported that they were broadly satisfied with their lives as a whole (BSA 83%). These findings are interesting and deserve further research (although the sample size will prohibit very detailed breakdowns). Clive also called for further, methodologically-enhanced survey research to build the evidence base, and provided some thoughts on prospects for integration and accommodation.

When discussion was opened to the floor, seminar participants were keen to probe how far negative attitudes among non-Muslims to Muslims were driven by generalised prejudice rather than something specific to Islam; how far they reflected antipathy to the tenets of Islam but not Muslims themselves; and how far they reflected antipathy to the highly religious and religiously-distinctive. The reliability of media-commissioned opinion polls seeking to create stories as well as reflect public attitudes was also discussed more deeply. It was a lively discussion, indicating appetite and scope for further research.

Clive has published on Islamophobia elsewhere:

C. Field (2007), ‘Islamophobia in contemporary Britain: the evidence of the opinion polls, 1988-2006’, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 18: 447-77.

C. Field (forthcoming), ‘Young British Muslims since 9/11: a composite attitudinal profile’, Religion, State and Society.

C. Field (forthcoming), ‘Revisiting Islamophobia in contemporary Britain: opinion poll findings for 2007-10’, Islamophobia in Western Europe and North America, ed. Marc Helbling, London: Routledge.

Accordingly, he is not planning to develop an academic article from this research but is happy for the slidepack to be available here at BRIN. For the full set of slides presented at the seminar, please visit this link:




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