Published 4 August 2008. First paragraph amended 9 June 2013.
In July, the think tank The Centre for Social Cohesion published a report "Islam on Campus: a survey of UK student opinions". This was available for free download on the Centre for Social Cohesion website. As that organisation has closed down, the report is hard to find. To assist people reading the page below, I have uploaded it at this link.
Its release sparked a number of newspaper articles such as Minette Marrin in the Sunday Times on 27 July "To beat extremism we must dissolve religious groups" and Patrick Sawer on the Telegraph website on the same day "Killing for religion is justified, say third of Muslim students".
The report merits close reading. Doing so reveals that although it claims to be objective research, it has been heavily influenced by the preconceptions of its creators.
The Background section starting on page 1 lists a number of incidents where British Muslim students have been convicted of terrorist acts, raising the question of the extent of violent radicalism in British universities. Accordingly, it is perfectly reasonable to carry out research to assess whether some aspects of student life, such as participation in an Islamic student society, inspire people to become terrorists. However from here the report proceeds to lose objectivity.
Page 10 reports that in the male prayer room at Birmingham University, amongst 30 books, the researchers found five that they describe, or more precisely insinuate, as Islamist. I use "insinuate" because the writers never actually say precisely what is wrong with finding these books in a prayer room. However the manner in which they are described (for example referring to Saudi publishers) implies that these texts are somehow dangerous. As an even more serious departure from objectivity, we are told nothing about the other 25 books in the male prayer room. That is rather like searching my house and reporting that I own a copy of "Milestones" by Sayyid Qutb, without mentioning what other books I own, which include "The Mishnah". Selection of which books to list is an easy way to distort readers' perceptions of Islamic student societies.
The survey of student opinion was carried out by the polling organisation YouGov. I have no qualms about the objectivity or reliability of YouGov. However, the key problem is with the survey questions. I assume these were formulated by the researchers from the Centre for Social Cohesion rather than by YouGov.
The question that got the newspapers most excited is on page 43 under the heading "Killing for the Faith". This question is worth looking at closely as it illustrates how much mischief can be created by a badly worded survey question. This poor wording may be inadvertent, or it may come from the preconceptions of the researchers.
The question was "Is it ever justifiable to kill in the name of religion?" The multiple choices offered were:
1. Yes in order to preserve and promote that religion
2. Yes but only if that religion is under attack
3. No it is never justifiable
4. Not sure.
Only 4% of Muslim students chose the first answer. While I am surprised it was as many as that, before choosing to become alarmed I want to know what the respondents meant in selecting that answer. However what got the newspapers really excited was 28% of Muslim students choosing the second response. In my view this is a simple example of "Ask a stupid question; get a stupid answer."
If you rewrite the question as "Is it ever justifiable to kill in the name of Britain? Yes but only if Britain is under attack," I would expect a nearly 100% positive answer from the British public; falling below 100% only because some people are pacifists. Expecting respondents to choose option 3 is equivalent to saying that the Jews trapped in the Warsaw ghetto were wrong to fight back against the Nazi soldiers attacking them.
As a further illustration of the poor formulation of some of the key questions, it is worth looking at page 60 where the question is "How much respect do you have for homosexuals?" 53% of Muslim students answered "The same amount of respect as I have for anyone else." However I personally find the question almost impossible to answer, as I don't understand what is meant by "respect" in this context. On the one hand I believe that homosexual conduct is a sin, as do most Christians and Jews. On the other hand, I also believe that homosexuals are entitled to the same civil rights, including freedom from discrimination, as all other citizens. What answer should I give to the question?
Finally, the content and tone of Appendix 3 "Friends of Al-Aqsa Literature" tell us much more about the researchers' personal views of the conflict in the Middle East than they do about Muslim students and extremism. Quite clearly, in the eyes of the authors, anyone who believes that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the construction of its wall are illegal is an extremist.