Why British Muslims stand out

Pew survey on Western-Muslim relations: four-letter explanation why Britain stands out.

You have heard of the latest gloomy Pew Global Attitudes survey of relations between Muslims and Westerners : in a word, bad. Who’s to blame? The other side, except that

.. Fully 28% of Jordanians and 22% of Egyptians volunteer that “Jews” are mostly to blame for bad relations [between Muslims and westerners] , although Jews were not mentioned in the question.

One ray of light is that Muslims in Western Europe, surveyed separately by Pew for the first time (warning: small samples with large margins of error) are evolving different attitudes to those of the Muslim heartland. This is heartening in the face of the racial discrimination these immigrants routinely encounter. (It is racial, not religious; with marginal exceptions like the French ban on the hijab in schools, difficulties over prayer obligations in the workplace, and appropriate religious education where this is offered, they enjoy pretty full freedom of religion. Their problem is that they are stigmatised as Asians (Britain), Arabs (France and Spain), Turks or Kurds (Germany) – or else as black Africans, which is even worse.) Ayatollah Khomeini aimed right when he issued the scandalous fatwa against Salman Rushdie: it is in prosperous, cosmopolitan, educated Europe that Muslims will produce their Moses Mendelsohn.

But there’s one country that bucks the trend: my own.

Pew says:

For the most part, Western European Muslims surveyed express very different – and more positive – views of Westerners than do Muslims in Muslim countries…..

The Muslim minority population of Great Britain is an exception to this pattern. Across the full battery of questions, they have much more negative views of Westerners than do the Muslim minorities of Germany, France and Spain.

This alienation takes a bizarre form in the denial of plain fact over 9/11:

…Majorities in Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan say that they do not believe groups of Arabs carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. …. And this attitude is not limited to Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries – 56% of British Muslims say they do not believe Arabs carried out the terror attacks against the U.S., compared with just 17% who do.

British Muslims are not Arabs and don’t even speak Arabic, so the driver must be religion. It’s just possible that they misunderstood the question as implying collective guilt, as in “the Arabs”, but the question was well worded with “groups of Arabs”, so this is unlikely.

Add to this Richard Reid and the two London Tube bombing plots (one successful, one foiled) and you have a pattern. In contrast, Spain has suffered no follow-ups to the devastating Madrid train bombings of March 2004, and France and Germany havn’t suffered major attacks at all.

A high-level internal British Government report in May 2004 recognised the problem:

Many young British Muslims integrate and contribute positively to society. Britain scores higher than other European countries for acceptance of Muslims. But:

* Some feel they cannot be both British and Muslim; and polls suggest a small but significant minority are sympathetic to extremism and terrorist activity;

* Extremist groups in the UK actively recruit young Muslims;

* Small numbers of young British Muslims have engaged in terrorism, both at home and abroad.

Why the difference with the continent?

The British report in Mandarin Marxist style puts the blame for extremism on deprivation. But is this really worse in Britain than in the other three countries? You’d be hard put to find ghettoes in Britain with the near-complete joblessness of the French banlieues where riots erupted in late 2005 – riots for jobs, not for terrorism.

Take a grab-bag of possible contributing factors.

Country Britain France Germany Spain
Basic policy Multiculturalism Assimilation Multiculturalism Neglect
Entry to élites High Low Low none (first generation)
Youth unemployment, 2005; Eurostat 12.9% 22.3% 15.0% 19.7%
Urban ghettoes Yes Yes Yes ?
Job discrimination Yes Yes Yes Yes
Remedies for it Yes No No No
Racism in host culture Significant Significant Significant Significant
Eroticised mass culture Yes Yes Yes Yes
Gender role tensions Yes Yes Yes Yes
Religion in school Interfaith None Christian Christian
Tolerance for Muslim dress

in school

High None Medium High? – update from comment
Tolerance for radical imams High Low Medium Low?
Anti-terrorism laws Tough Tough Medium Tough

None of this really seems to pick out Britain. (Update: see comments on imams.)

Polls taken in the aftermath of 9/11 gave 7-15% of British Muslims thinking the attacks were completely or partly justified. In France, in a poll of French Muslims (IFOP, October 2001) 4% disagreed with the statement that Islam condemns such acts. The margins of error and the different wordings don’t allow one to infer safely that fewer French than British Muslims were radical then. What one can say that in both countries a small minority did sympathise. But only in Britain did the sympathy evolve into active participation.

There’s one more factor:

Country Britain France Germany Spain
Joined second Iraq war Yes No No Yes, then quit
Terrorist attack Several None None One

Tony Blair was warned, quite formally, by British intelligence before the war that it increased the risk to Britain from al-Qaeda terrrorism. This was spot on. What they didn’t predict was where: at home.

Tony Blair has committed the unforgivable sin for a politician : he has sacrificed the security of his country to his own ambition, in this case to be seen as a selfless world statesman.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “Why British Muslims stand out”

  1. Your "Tolerance for radical imams" category seems to pick out Britain, doesn't it?
    For "Joined second Iraq war", how would you compare Britain to the U.S.?

  2. Second Mr. Turtle's motion. When I read the first table, I thought "wow, maybe France is right that you shouldn't allow hijabs in school and radical mosques." I was a little surprised when I saw the "None of this picks out Britain" comment.
    If you're trying to make a point about the iraq war, you've given us too much reality-based commentary and too little slanting to drive your point home.

  3. Tolerance for Muslim dress in school in Spain is high from my experience. But then they don't wear burkas in most countries of procedence. I only remember a little about one case some two years ago.
    Distribution of the population is irregular but not yet a ghetto. There should be some ghettoisation in Almeria, where there is a strong concentration of workers for intensive agriculture.

  4. Mr Turtle: you are right that "tolerance for radical imams" does seem to pick out Britain too. Mea culpa in a small way. But (a) I'm unsure of the inter-country evaluation here; all of thee countries are certainly keeping radicals under close surveillance, the radicals are hiding from the spooks, and the details of the subterranean struggle aren't public; (b) more important, it's not credible to me at least that a few propagandists like Abu Hamza (jailed in 2004) can have such a widespread effect alone. The Juan Cole link gives sources for the proposition that the UK intelligence community is convinced of the link of domestic extremism to the Iraq war.
    What's your point about the US? Pew didn't survey US Muslims, who are far fewer proportionately and better integrated. The USA was taking a low risk of alienating its own Muslims, and so far the risk hasn't materialised, Padilla notwithstanding. Britain took a much bigger risk and faces the consequences; France and Germany (among other reasons for keeping out) put their own safety first, and rightly so. My view is that even if the US had been right to invade Iraq – which I never thought was the case – Britain was wrong to join.
    Antoni Jaume: thanks for the observations about Spain. British and Dutch tolerance for Muslim dress in school draws the line at burqas, and quite right – it prevents a normal teaching relationship. In many British schools Muslim girls can wear the hijab and the shalwar kameez, in the school uniform colours!

  5. Mr. Wimberley,
    Thanks for the response. My question didn't have a point, it just seemed like a natural question given that there is really only one other country involved in the Iraq war. I was wondering what conclusions you would draw about the US and its Muslim population.

  6. James, let's put aside, for the moment, your attempt at factor correlation, which I'm absolutely certain would be laughed out of any of Mark's freshman sociology classes if any of his students were obtuse enough to propose it. Let's just consider, instead, the lesson you infer from your observation: that if many members of a minority community embrace terrorist violence, then the right government policies are those that appease these supporters of terrorism.
    Do you really believe that's the right set of incentives to offer members of minority communities? What message does it deliver to members of the same minority community who had never thought to support or advocate, let alone commit, terrorism? Or to the members of other minority groups that lack a subculture of disaffected, violent potential terrorists?

  7. Let's just consider, instead, the lesson you infer from your observation: that if many members of a minority community embrace terrorist violence, then the right government policies are those that appease these supporters of terrorism.
    Refraining from shooting Bill in the head after Fred sticks a knife in your back isn't appeasement of Bill.

  8. "Refraining from shooting Bill in the head after Fred sticks a knife in your back isn't appeasement of Bill."
    That's easily the most tortured, confused attempt at an analogy I've ever seen. Instead of trying to unwind and correct it, I'll simply reiterate my point: if the British government changes its policy in order to appease pro-terrorist British Muslims, then it thereby encourages members of British minority groups (including Muslims themselves) to adopt a violent, pro-terrorist stance on issues of their choosing, in order to win a similar concession.
    Now, there may be all sorts of other reasons for advocating a change to a particular policy. However, advocating the policy change on the grounds that the policy has caused a particular minority group to become more pro-terrorist, leads directly to the above perverse incentive.

  9. Dan Simon: my point was that some British Muslims became terrorists *after* the Iraq war. It's not a question of appeasement – ask the prisoners in Belmarsh whether they think they are being appeased – so much as of provocation. Sometimes you have to take risks of this type; but no convincing argument has ever been advanced why it was in the British national interest to do so over Iraq 2. Has Germany's alliance with the USA really suffered because of its refusal to go along?

  10. If you don't see anything that picks out Britain in that chart, you surely aren't looking hard enough. I count four rows on which Britain is at one end of the scale, all of which are at least vaguely related, and, if one considers the theory that revolutions happen not during periods of no hope, but during periods when rapidly rising expectations are dashed, are all at least slightly relevant.
    I'm moderately surprised that you didn't add the responsibility for the partition of Palestine to the list of factors.

  11. I think one of the other factors maybe, that the Turks in Germany are not integrated into German society, but still have strong links to Turkey. Similarly, most of the north africans in spain have strong ties with North Africa.
    Islanders are weird isolated folk 🙂

  12. James, the distinction between prior restraint for the sake of appeasing would-be terrorists and after-the-fact appeasement is a distinction without a difference. In both cases, the incentives are manifest and pernicious: groups with a perceived potential to resort to terrorism are accorded a degree of policy influence not granted to others.
    Note that I'm making a fairly narrow argument here. It's perfectly reasonable, for example, to argue that Britain's participation in the Iraq war didn't justify the overall costs. It's even reasonable to argue that it alienated British Muslims to the point of, say, being disaffected from the Labour Party, or being less enthusiastic about buying British goods–these costs are perfectly legitimate elements of a British government's political calculus. (I would note, though, that Blair's re-election suggests that his ability to analyze a political balance sheet deserves at least some credence.)
    But to blame a terror campaign on the government policies that the terrorists are trying to reverse is to grant a legitimacy to politics-through-terrorism that it most decidedly does not deserve.

  13. Surely a prominent variable left out is country of origin: a large number of British Muslims come from Pakistan and other parts of the subcontinent, one of the most politicized and radicalized sections of the Muslim world. Even before the Iraq war, they were far more likely to see the campaign in Afghanistan as a crime and an affront. (And its hard to see how the Iraq war would lead to such large differences from other European Muslim populations on who carried out 9/11. This speaks to something more fundamental going on, even if Iraq further energized it.) The other European countries drew their Muslim populations from areas that have signficant violent Islamist activity (France from Algeria and other parts of North Africa; Spain from Morocco; Germany from Turkey)but Pakistan stands out from the widespread
    vibrancy of its movement, with sections of its north being steadily turned into Taliban states where the central government's writ does not run.
    The travels of the 7/7 bombers back "home" speak to the continuing influence of country of origin on the British born children of immigrants.

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