Middle East Monitor: “UK survey on British Muslims cites Palestine as major issue”

Writing in the Middle East Monitor, Nasim Ahmed explains the importance given to the liberation of Palestine in the Normative Islam Report.

Few would have been surprised by many of the findings in a new survey commissioned by 5Pillars on the views of “influential British Muslims”. Billed as the “Normative Islam Report”, the survey sampled 150 influential Muslims from a cross-section of British Muslim communities. This included Sunni and Shite participants, as well as a number of other theological and legal backgrounds. The findings are as equally instructive as they are unsurprising. Not least on the question of Palestine.

Despite their eclectic background, Muslims agree universally on key values and principles. This survey confirms this and challenges a number of popular notions about Islam and more specifically in this case, British Muslims.

Since 2013, 5Pillars, a London-based news website, has become a regular feature in British Muslim political discourse. This survey is possibly their most impressive work to date. Authored by Peter Pickersgill, founder and managing director of a leading market research company, the report provides a possible answer to the age old questions such as “who speaks for Islam?” and “which brand of Islam should we accept?” At the very least it sets a baseline for speaking about Muslims and Islam and equally provides an answer to these recurring questions. Who knows, it may even prevent the customary descent towards an intellectual grid-lock as to what is and is not Islam in our postmodernist world.

A total of 95 statements grouped under 12 topic headings were asked. They addressed subjects such as belief, politics, global humanity, jihad, terrorism, citizenship, race, sectarianism, environment and food and health. Despite the varied range of questions and diversity of the pool, there was considerable agreement on key areas. According to the findings of the report, the average level of agreement with the 95 statements about mainstream Islamic beliefs was extremely high. On average, across all 95 statements, 86 per cent “strongly agreed” and a further 9% “agreed”. Only 1% “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed”.

As expected, statements about matters of belief reflected near unanimity amongst the respondents. 97 per cent believe that the “Quran is the word of God” and “Prophet Muhammad is a mercy to humanity”. Interestingly, the same numbers also believe forced marriage is forbidden in Islam, which is sure to surprise many in the right-wing press.

The levels of agreement over statements regarding global humanity and violence are also indicative of a community that is united on current issues. For example, 95 per cent strongly agreed that Daesh “does not represent mainstream Muslims and is an illegitimate Islamic state”. An even higher percentage also strongly agrees with the statement: “There is no compulsion in religion”.

Questions about “Islamic governance” led to the widest disagreement. 69 per cent strongly agreed with the statement: “The true caliphate is considered the ideal Islamic way of governance”. By itself this figure can be misrepresentative given that slightly more also believe that the “true caliphate is not a theocratic state”.

Furthermore the respondents, the vast majority of whom have some form of higher qualification and are also born in the UK, either strongly agree or agree (95 per cent) with the statement that the “caliphate is based on principles of justice, transparency, accountability, compassion, equality, tolerance, individual rights and the rule of law”. In a separate question, nearly all the respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement: “Islam promotes compassion and justice for all people regardless of religion, social status, race or any other context”.

As with most surveys, many of these questions and their answers conceal deeper complexities. This is typified by the question on “Islamic governance”. One wouldn’t be off the mark to suggest that the “ideal caliphate” debate is more about a political model to secure universal ideals for everyone and less about an imagined ideal political model.

Much of this debate has become extremely simplistic and reductive. Commentators also seem less interested in understanding nuances and addressing challenges in transporting foreign concepts to a new cultural discourse than they are in reinforcing their preconceptions about Islam and Muslims.

The truth invariably gets lost in translation. Nonetheless we get an approximation of the “normative Islamic system” according to those surveyed based on their near unanimous agreement for “people of all races and creeds to work together and cooperate for the betterment of the wider society” and equally in the notion that “Islam promotes multi-racial and multicultural societies”.

The diversity of the pool reflected the most when it came to questions related to politics. However Palestine bucked this predictable trend, with 98 per cent either strongly agreeing or agreeing with the statement: “Justice and fairness must be restored in Palestine for the benefit of all people regardless of their races, colours and creeds, living in the region”. There was slightly less agreement with the statement: “Muslims consider Israel to be illegally occupying Palestinian land”.

If we unpack the two questions we find that they are in line with the general direction of public opinion.

By no stretch of the imagination can we say these figures correspond with the wider British community. However, support for Palestine and more specifically support for a two state solution is shared by the majority of the British population. Across 19 countries surveyed in Europe, 40 per cent endorse their government’s support for a Palestinian state and 21 per cent do not. The remaining did not know or said it depends. Within the UK, this is much higher, with 53 per cent in support of a Palestinian state and 26 per cent against it. A YouGov poll also showed that the British public are more pro-Palestinian than the French or American general public.

Contrary to the claims made by the current Conservative government, who see fit to single out Israel for special privilege by penalising public bodies for making the ethical decision to boycott Israel, support for Palestine is driven by consideration of universal values and human rights.

The views of Muslims, reflected by the two questions on Palestine, is perfectly consistent with international law, as well as the official policy of the UK, which also views Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land illegal and which we hope also still believes that justice and fairness must be restored in Palestine for the benefit of all people regardless of their race, colour and creeds.

If nothing else, this survey brings to light the deeply held sense of common humanity and a conviction for universal justice amongst British Muslims, highlighted also by their unanimous support for the just cause of the Palestinian people.

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