Poll On Sharia Law Not All Bad News For Secularists

NSS council member DAN BYE takes another looks at Muslim opinion
The ICM/Sunday Telegraph poll of Islamic opinion published on 20th February, generated a lot of alarmed newspaper headlines and media comment, because 40 per cent of the respondents said they would support the introduction of Sharia law in majority-Muslim areas of Britain.

The survey was a small one – just 500 participants. Also, the pollsters got their target sample by asking some respondents to provide the telephone number of another Muslim, which should make us cautious about how representative the survey was. Nevertheless, on the face of it, 40 per cent support for such a proposal is cause for concern. But it also means that 60 per cent of respondents did not support the proposal – and 41 per cent were prepared to say they opposed it.

Some of the results should please secularists. For example, 80 per cent of those polled agreed that although “Western society may not be perfect… Muslims should live within it and not seek to bring it to an end.” And although 97 per cent said it was wrong to publish cartoons depicting Mohammed, 82 per cent said that attacking Danish embassies was wrong and the same proportion said that it was wrong to carry placards calling for the killing of those who insult Islam. A significant minority (11%) per cent weren’t offended by the cartoons at all.

On the London bombings, only 1 per cent were prepared to say that they were “right”, and 75 per cent said they had no sympathy with the bombers at all, regardless of the justifications offered. Many non-Muslims have also expressed “understanding” of the bombers’ cause (or what they take to be their cause).

When asked: “Compared to two years ago, are women in your family covering their faces and bodies in public more often or less often?” 32 per cent said it was more often, but significantly, 13 per cent said it was less often, and 53 per cent said there had been no change. So, 66 per cent of those polled say that face/body covering has either not changed or is less common. This at a time when Muslims feel they are under collective pressure, and you might expect conservative practices to flourish in reaction. Curiously, fewer female respondents (28%) than male (35%) thought women were covering their faces and bodies more often!

ICM claimed that the figures demonstrated a “hardening” of Muslim attitudes, and it’s not surprising to find Muslims feeling more alienated from the rest of British society, given recent events. Just as fascism grows in the soil of real social problems, we can expect extremist Islamism to take advantage of – and encourage – Muslim discontent. What the poll doesn’t tell us is how changeable Muslim opinion is. If there is a lessening of conflict in the Middle East, for example, would the extremists lose what sympathy they have? The poll shows that the under 35 age group is more radical than the over 35 age group – will they get more secular as they get older?

In order to understand what is really happening, we need several years’ worth of data. ICM have run three previous surveys (in association with the Guardian in these cases) – March 2004, November 2004 and July 2005. In all the comment about February’s results, I could find only one reference to these past polls. The November 2004 survey asked whether those polled would support the introduction of Sharia courts to resolve civil cases within the Muslim community. The wording of the question is different to the more recent one, but it is worth noting that 61 per cent then agreed. And the March 2004 poll found that, given a choice, 44 per cent would choose a state school and 45 per cent would choose a Muslim school. These are important findings, the implications of which have been ignored by the media.

Secularists can take comfort from the confirmation in this series of polls that there is a broad diversity of views among the followers of Islam. Also, support for radical Islamist policies does not have universal or unchallenged support among Muslims. Many Muslims doubtless want to benefit from the religious and personal freedoms of a non-theocratic state, despite the undoubted prejudice and other social problems many of them face. They will also hopefully be in a better position to resist the encroachments of extremists. A struggle is taking place within British Islam – secularists should look for and encourage the liberal voices, and resist the stereotyping of Muslims by both the media and extremists.

The full results can be examined here: