Headlines like “Third of Muslim Students Back Killing”

“Third of Muslim Students Back Killing”

Doesn’t this headline (and maybe the accompanying article) from the newspaper* make your blood boil? It does mine, but only when I compare it with the full report on which it is based+.

Let us look at the first paragraph of the Conclusion of the report upon which the article is based:

“This report shows that British Muslim students hold a diverse and broad range of opinions. The majority of Muslim students have tolerant ideas towards other minorities, reject violence in the name of their faith and support Britain’s secular and democratic society as well as its system of governance.”

The Introduction also says:
“The results show that Muslim students hold opinions and attitudes which are broad and varied, giving cause both for hope and concern.”

Does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

I went to the full report because the headline raised a lot of questions.
For example I hoped to find out what are the figures for other religions? Answer is there none. The poll chose not to discover that, but simply lumped all non-Muslims together. In fact the proportion of non-Muslims who are members of religious societies at the Universities is shown as 6%. So since the proportion of non-Muslims who would “back killings” is 2%, it is possible that a higher proportion of non-Muslim religious students would “back killings” than Muslim students.

The question asked was “Is it ever justifiable to kill in the name of religion?” In fact I was pretty surprised to find that actually 53% said “No, it is never justifiable”, as one of the other answers (28%) was “Yes, but only if that religion was under attack”. I hesitate to guess what would be the answer if Jews were asked this question, and I think the answer among practising Christians might be interesting. In fact, as an atheist I am not sure how I would answer if I interpreted the question as “Is it ever justifiable to kill if you are being attacked as an atheist?”; an interpretation I might have if I felt as got at by press headlines like the one above, but directed at atheism.
Do not forget that this is a generation of Muslims that will often vividly remember the horror of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and genocide of the Srebrenica massacre only 13 years ago, when many would say that Muslims were simply left to defend themselves.

There is some wonderful stuff in the report, I think, albeit with other stuff that might be a bit worrying. Mind you, the worrying stuff is pretty mild compared with the attitudes that were prevalent in a very English society I grew up in in the 60s.
Examples I can pick out:
(Diagram 13) Only 4% of Muslim students think that “My parents are MUCH more liberal than I am”. All the rest are might be considered roughly the same or much more liberal (39%). So does this support the idea or radicalisation of the student population? I think not.
(Diagram 31) “What should happen to a person who decides to leave Islam?” 36% say nothing, 45% they should be encouraged to rethink, and 13% not sure. Perhaps worrying is that 6% say they should be punished, of whom the text says that half said it was their understanding that Sharia Law specifies the death penalty for apostasy. It is rather puzzling that this last question on the penalty for apostasy is absent from the data in the appendix, uniquely as far as I can tell. Also, here we might be concerned with the semantics of “apostasy” and “leaving Islam”, both of which can be interpreted in a number of ways. It is perhaps interesting to note that in formal terms Islam shares with Judaism the death penalty for apostasy.
(Diagram 48) 12% of Muslim students said they thought it was difficult to be Muslim and British equally, as being Muslim comes first. Not too bad for a religion – I’m not sure how I feel about being British.
(Diagram 52) 25% have “Not very much or no respect at all” (the least respectful category) for homosexuals. Interesting in the light of the current debate within the Anglican Communion.
(Diagram 54) 7% “Not very much or no respect at all” for Jews; compared with 3% for non-Muslims. Again, I confess the 7% surprised me as being low, but I have been reading the newspapers; is this the level you would have expected?
(Diagrams 57 & 60) Although 59% of Muslim students think that it is important that Muslim women wear the hijab, only 31% would not leave it up to the individual woman.
(Diagram 62) A full 85% would say that men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah (possibly with the exception of a couple of issues) (with 7% not sure). Yet again, it would be interesting to know the comparative figures for religions such as Catholicism.
(Diagram 66) is exciting in counterpoint, as it shows that 33% of students (with 9% not sure) consider that men and women are not treated equally in the local community. (Diagram 70) shows that a tiny proportion, 5%, consider that they should not be treated equally.

So this gives some idea of why my blood boils at this headline. Of course, I have tended to pick the stuff that looked positive from my point of view for this article, in counterpoint to the press, but there is certainly much that could have been reported to support a view of a less radicalised student population.

Musing on why such newspaper reports happen might also be interesting. One can blame the journalists and editors, but I find much of discomfort in the original report and methodology.

To start with, the reports will have come from a press release, which will take an angle – noticeably the reports all seem to quote the same words. If a journalist chose to investigate further, they would get to the 3 page Executive Summary**, and might find time to scan it. Unfortunately the Executive Summary is very number oriented, and starts with a section on “Killing in the name of religion:”, which is pretty eye-catching, while having a very brief reference to the sentiments of the paragraph quoted above.

If anyone does get to the document I have reviewed, they will find a 126 page document, which is unlikely to be read in detail by any journalist. It is also deeply repetitive, with lots of extra diagrams about the difference between the views of Muslims who are members of Islamic societies and those who are not. I am left with a sense that the focus on Islamic societies is both a way of having lots of diagrams showing Muslim views and also a way of gathering statistics that are as extreme as possible, in terms of Muslim views.

Looking at the details of the survey, I have further misgivings.

It is immediately clear that real comparisons are very hard to make because the questions asked are often different. For example we know that 9% of non-Muslims have “Not very much or no respect at all” for Muslims (Diagram 56), but the inverse question was not asked – we never find out what respect Muslims have for non-Muslims. We do find out that 11% of Muslims do not respect Atheists (Diagram 51), but we never find out if non-Muslims have less respect for Atheists than this.

In fact, although at first sight it looks like the report is a comparison of the views of Muslim and non-Muslim students, there are very few question that are asked of both. A question such as “Do you believe that men and women should be treated equally?” could easily be asked of both, but is only addressed at Muslim students. Often when the same question is asked of both groups, the wording is different (unnecessarily in my view), and the ordering is different. For example the headline question of “Is it ever justifiable to kill in the name of religion?” is number 39 for Muslims, after lots of questions about the tenets of Islam, and number four for non-Muslims, immediately after a question asking what they think of their University’s Islamic society.

It is hard to consider an approach with these characteristics an honest attempt to ascertain views. It is less “A survey of UK student opinions” than “Two surveys of UK student opinions” presented in one document.

Moving further back to the process of the data gathering, choice of subjects is always an interesting question. The opinions gathered from interviews in the report come from campus visits where the authors “chose to focus our research on a dozen high profile universities with significant Muslim student populations and active Islamic Societies”. Of course asking places with active Islamic Societies is likely to find interesting views, but may not be quite the right way to approach a report on “A survey of UK student opinions”.

Looking at the numbers, we find that the statistics that are quoted are based on 1400 students (600 Muslim and 800 non-Muslim), as part of an “online survey”. There is no enlightenment as to how the subjects were chosen, who was asked, or what proportion responded? It seems the reader must trust that the respondents were not self-selecting in bias towards those who have strong opinions, as is often the case with online surveys.

Looking at the report itself, it seems that it sets a tone at the start. Apart from much of the statistical material, from which I have quoted above, there is quite a lot of text. After the short Introduction and Methodology sections, the first significant text is entitled “Background”. Immediately under this heading is a sub-heading: “Violent radicalism and British universities”. After 3.5 pages reviewing radical Islam and listing terror outrages by Islamic students who studied at British universities, there is a page that basically explains how the Government and others are being complacent.

It is pleasing to note that after this initial section the report settles down, and makes genuinely interesting reading of the authors’ findings concerning prayer rooms and interviews with students.

Up until now I have avoided what is often the last refuge of the charlatan in a heated discussion: to attack the motives of the opponent. However, I think it would be inappropriate to avoid saying some words about the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC), who are the publishers of the substantive report.

The report says that: “The Centre for Social Cohesion is an independent and non-partisan think-tank based in London. It was founded by Civitas in 2007 to promote new thinking that can help bring Britain’s ethnic and religious communities closer together while strengthening British traditions of openness, tolerance and democracy. The CSC is the first think-tank in the UK to specialise in studying radicalisation and extremism within Britain.”

I am not sure what “independent and non-partisan” actually means. CSC*** is often referred to as an “independent think-tank”. I think we should always be wary of such descriptions – how would such a think-tank be funded? Funders or volunteers will always have opinions, which is as it should be. In fact (as it makes clear), CSC is funded by Civitas++ (The Institute for the Study of Civil Society). Clearly the people who contribute to and fund this organisation have opinions. As far as I can tell, it aims to provide educational material and support various other activities. I have a suspicion that much of this is what is often described as neo-conservative, but arguments for more private involvement in education and healthcare which Civitas seems to make should be part off the debate. Even their statement from their web site that “A more measured system of immigration control is long overdue.” does not fill me with horror, and should form part of the discussion.

However, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”, as the King James version says. So to help the reader put the substantive report in context, I finally turn to the outputs of CSC: the other publications from their web site, and the descriptions they give:

Virtual Caliphate: Islamic extremists and their websites
Virtual Caliphate shows how Islamic extremists in the United Kingdom have established dedicated websites in order to circumvent British anti-terrorism measures introduced after July 2005. It is the first report to catalogue the content of these websites and to analyse how British extremists use these sites to spread jihadist ideologies, co-ordinate their activities and win new recruits.

Crimes of the Community: Honour-based violence in the UK
Crimes of the Community examines how ideas of honour can lead to violence. Examining forced marriages, honour killings, female genital mutilation (FGM) and honour-based domestic violence, the report explains why such violence is carried out and why it continues. Based on over 80 interviews with women’s groups, community activists and the victims of honour-based violence, Crimes of the Community is the most comprehensive study of honour-based violence ever conducted in the UK.

Hate on the State: How British libraries encourage Islamic extremism
The first report published by the Centre for Social Cohesion examines how public libraries may be fuelling Islamic radicalism. The study finds that the libraries of Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest and Birmingham in particular have stocked a disproportionate number of pro-jihadist texts at the expense of more moderate authors.

I am certain that views I find unacceptable or deeply antagonistic are held and stated by some Muslim students, as well as the people who speak to them. I am incidentally also equally sure that members of other religions have views I find just as unacceptable. What I find worrying, and possibly reprehensible is the divisive nature of the headline reports I see, fuelled by inputs of dubious validity. Encouraging newspaper reports such as those referred to are not really the way to encourage Social Cohesion. If you were a Christian, and you lived in Pakistan, and you saw a headline which said: “Third of Christian Students Back Killing”, would you feel that was cohesive for the society you lived in?

* Sunday Times 27/07/08, and similar in other nationals.
+ “Islam on Campus: A survey of UK student opinions”, The Centre For Social Cohesion
** http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/pdf/IslamonCampusExecutiveSummary.pdf
*** http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/
++ http://www.civitas.org.uk/

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One thought on “Headlines like “Third of Muslim Students Back Killing””

  1. The moment it says that it’s an online survey that rules out the possibility that the results mean anything. An opinion survey (which this is) must be done by taking a random sample matched to (student) population demographics otherwise it is utterly worthless. The headline numbers might just as well be invented, saving them the cost of running a survey at all. The other glaring design errors hardly even matter if the approach taken in surveying is itself wrong-headed.

    File this under “headline grabbing nonsense” along with articles about particular foods that either cause or prevent cancer, and any article about a mathematical “formula” for beauty or some other abstract concept.

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