May 5th 2016
OVER the past few weeks, reports have been published in both Canada and Britain about the state of Muslim citizens' opinion on a broad range of topics. The Canadian poll results were generally hailed as a pleasant surprise, while the British investigation was seen as fresh, depressing evidence that followers of Islam were ultra-conservative in their social attitudes and ambivalent towards violence. Does that point to a huge gap, sociological or even theological, between Canadian and British Muslims? That seems unlikely. What the polls do indicate, though, is a big difference of political atmosphere.
Let's have a look at the two surveys and the responses they generated. In Canada, it was noted that Muslims resemble their non-Muslims compatriots in seeing the economy and jobs as the country's biggest concerns. As you might expect, a majority of the Muslim respondents supported the right of Muslim students to pray in government schools, and of Muslim women to wear a Niqab, or face veil, at citizenship ceremonies. But these rights (both the subject of recent public arguments) are also supported by a somewhat smaller majority of non-Muslims
Differences between Canada's 1m followers of Islam and their 33m compatriots did emerge. While nine in ten Muslims agreed with the statement that “taking care of home and kids is as much a man’s work as woman’s work", gaps opened up when the questioners probed deeper. They found that four in ten Muslim respondents thought the father should be master in his own house, a view held by only two in ten non-Muslims.
Some Canadians were surprised that in their country, younger Muslims (aged 18 to 34) were even more religiously observant than their parents, already among the most pious social groups. Young Muslims tend to visit mosques for prayer regularly, wear the Hijab (head scarf) and support the right to pray in schools. Among non-Muslim Canadians, the young are growing more secular. Do these diverging trends augur problems in future? Michael Adams, president of Environics, the polling firm which did the study, doesn’t think so. He suggests that Muslims, of which seven in ten were born abroad, have simply taken Canada at its word when it promises religious freedom.
So how does all that compare with the British survey, done by the polling firm ICM for a documentary on Channel 4 television, presented by Trevor Philips, a former head of the country's Equality and Human Rights Commission? In one respect, findings converged. Both in Canada and Britain, respondents affirmed their patriotism. Some 86% of British Muslims felt a strong sense of belonging to Britain, against 83% for the whole population; in Canada, likewise, more than eight in ten Muslims said they were very proud of their country, against just over seven in ten non-Muslim Canadians.
But in general, the British questions were blunter and the results more startling. British Muslims were asked whether homosexuality should be legal. Some 52% disagreed and only 18% agreed. In Canada, where the question was about the moral rather than the legal status of homosexuality, some 43% of Muslims thought it was unacceptable, triple the level of non-Muslims holding that view.
On extremist violence, the British poll asked whether respondents personally sympathised or condemned people who committed terrorist actions as a form of political protest (some 4% had some sympathy) while the Canadian study avoided probing respondents' own views and asked for an assessment of the community as a whole. Some 7% thought there was some support among Muslim Canadians for the violent activity of extremist groups like Islamic State. Neither result is reassuring.
Several other responses from British Muslims caused alarm. Some 23% favoured introducing Sharia law in some areas of Britain, while 39% felt that wives should always obey their husbands. Asked about the stoning of adulterers, some 66% completely deplored the practice and 13% condemned it "to some extent"; up to 5% felt at least some sympathy for stoners. Some 31% thought a British Muslim man should be allowed to have more than one wife. Only 34% would tell the police if they heard that somebody they knew was getting involved with supporters of terrorism in Syria.
The surveys used different methods. The British pollsters did face-to-face interviews with 1,000 Muslims living in places where the Islamic population exceeded 20% while the Canadian investigators did telephone interviews with 600 Muslims, focusing on locations where the Muslim share was 5% or more. From more densely-packed communities, you'd expect harder-core responses.
But the real contrast (as much in the reaction to the polls as in the results) is one of political zeitgeist. Relations between Britain's political establishment and the leadership of the Muslim community are at a nadir because of differences over how to curb extremism. There is widespread dismay over the latest version of the government's "Prevent" policy, designed to nip extremism in the bud by requiring anyone looking after young people to monitor their opinions. The government's communications have been inept, and some Muslim leaders depressingly unwilling to accept responsibility for fighting terrorism. Tempers may soon grow hotter: in the Queen's speech to the British Parliament on May 18th, plans will be laid out to give the government more powers to ban organisations and gag suspicious individuals.
Among Her Majesty's Canadian subjects, Muslim and otherwise, the mood is more upbeat. Nine out of ten Canadian Muslims think relations between themselves and their compatriots will improve under the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau.
Some 84% think they are already better treated than Muslims in other countries. This euphoria must partly reflect the fact that in the run-up to last October's election, the outgoing Conservative government seemed to play the Islamophobic card by introducing more explicit bans on "barbaric cultural practices" such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation, which were in fact illegal already. Voters, including the overwhelming majority of Canadian Muslims, seemed to prefer Mr Trudeau's emphasis on tolerance and diversity, which does not of course imply tolerating barbarism.