I will not hold my tongue about religion

Sometimes while writing I use Facebook updates to organise my thoughts, and the result is a rough form of what becomes an article. When I did so with the last post on this blog, one commenter asked me to publish the rough version, which is shorter and more shareable. (I’ve edited it lightly for republication here.)

Three years ago Greta Christina wrote a post asking what the goals of the atheist ‘movement’ were. It identifies two competing groups of atheists: one whose goals – combating anti-atheist bigotry, promoting secular governance, helping everyone to ‘get along’ – often entail alliance work with believers, and another who think religion is inherently a flawed, harmful phenomenon… and that we’d be better off without it, and that this is a goal worth pursuing.

The idea of noting these competing goals was, I think, to measure the usefulness of diplomatic versus firebrand-like approaches while talking about religion. (If the first group’s goals were her main or only ones, Greta writes, ‘I might well be advocating that we prioritise diplomacy more than we do, and dial back on the confrontationalism a bit.’) Chris Stedman cited her post to this effect at the Huffington Post, in a piece called ‘The Problem with “Atheist Activism”‘ which argued for the merits of the first group’s goals over the second’s.

Broadly speaking I’ve always shared Greta’s take, and have linked to it when frustrated by atheist civility politics, attacks on writers who aren’t ‘nice’ enough or the charge of being inflammatory, counterproductive and unconstructive. But there’s something I’d like to say in addition.

Some people’s main goal is combating bigotry and ‘building bridges’. Some people’s main goal is eroding the very grip religious faith has on the world in the first place. Especially as someone who unlike either Greta or Chris Stedman had a religious upbringing, I have a third aim to submit. As far as I’m concerned, it overrides both the others.

I hate the insistence I should self-censor to make what say about religion ‘constructive’, ‘productive’ or goal-serving – because whenever I’m speaking my mind about it I’m serving my primary goal. Speaking my mind about religion, including but not limited to my own experience – simply being able to speak freely about it without holding my tongue - is a constructive goal for me.

When other atheists tell me to shut up or be more polite because I’m hindering their cause, I want to tell them: saying what I want how I want is my cause. It matters more to me than any other, theirs included. You could convince me the way I write about religion makes more people convert to it. You could convince me that, as I’ve been told, it entrenches negative views of atheists or makes bridge-building impossible. I still wouldn’t stop.

What’s struck me repeatedly about the calm down brigade is that so often, they have no experience of having to hold their tongues – including about horrible things that happened to them – so religious feelings don’t get hurt. Tongue-holding no longer is the most important thing to me; it’s probably a large part of why I write a blog. And the fact is that if other people’s require me to give it up because to them it doesn’t seem constructive, I don’t care.

From my point of view, mouthing off and being an angry atheist stereotype seems hugely constructive.

Read the full version.

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To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.

Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence

I was recently linked to Pat Condell’s newest video, which argues ‘the most comically deluded people on this planet, outside creationists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, are idealistic left-wing gay people’ who ‘indulge a religion that wants them dead’ by opposing his campaign against Muslims, migrants and the left – the likes, in other words, of queer atheists like me, Chris Stedman and Owen Jones. (Vilification by Condell is, I’m quite sure, the first thing apart from the above Stedman and I have ever had in common.)

The video, if you can stand to view it, is below.

Personal as this is, my first response was to fisk it start-to-end – unfortunately, and as I found out quickly, there is simply so much wrong with this that a post comprehensively rebutting it would be very, very long. Responding to Condell is like playing chess against a wasp, as unfulfilling as it is unchallenging, but the argument in question is one atheists need urgently to settle, so I’m splitting my reply in two. The blow-by-blow analysis, including the more philosophical points to be made, will come after this post, which I’m focusing more purely factually on his specific claims about the attitudes of (British) Muslims. These can I think be summarised as follows:

  • Attitudes to homosexuality within Islam are uniform.
  • Muslims find homosexuality disgusting and ‘completely unacceptable’, disapproving of it and supporting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy such as Iran’s, including punishment with death.
  • Muslims don’t support or recognise concepts of gay or human rights, finding them vile, insulting and obscene.
  • Muslims do support extrajudicial homophobic violence such as criminal assaults on gay men.
  • Muslim population growth (and Muslim immigration in particular) thus threatens gay people’s rights and safety.

Based on the former point – his insistence Islam is devoid of nuance, variation or capacity for change – and how he flits confusingly between using UK Muslims’ views and the actions of Islamic governments and lobbyists around the world to buttress his case, it seems Condell is arguing these premises apply to Muslims wherever on the globe they are. (Trying to summarise his claims with accuracy is challenging, in fact, since his statements sprawl so inconsistently.) Odd, then, that despite stating ‘opinion polls’ (plural) support his views, he cites only one survey of British Muslims.

Actually, he doesn’t cite the survey in his video description: he cites the Guardian‘s coverage of it, headlined ‘Muslims in Britain have zero tolerance of homosexuality‘, which features no link to the poll itself. I strongly suspect that despite it being the only statistical research he gives to back up his assertions, he hasn’t read it, since its findings refute several of his main points.

Moral views on homosexuality

Britain’s media, for those still unaware, reports opinion polls notoriously badly, preferring dramatic headlines to detailed analysis not just on Islam, but generally. Publicising them without linking to data is exceptionally bad journalism, and whether you’re a columnist, a blogger or a video maker, it’s almost always better to give links to polls themselves than stories about them in newspapers. Properly carried out and analysed, polls are a powerfully useful tool, but their results – as no doubt will become clear in this post – require careful interpretation. (I’m going to examine several polls of British Muslims which appear relevant here. While I don’t feel like I need to – Condell’s entire case stands or falls on one – the hotly-argued nature of the topic makes me think a meta-analysis would be a good resource for the commentariat as well as atheists.)

‘Most Muslims’, Condell says in his video, ‘are disgusted by homosexuality and think it’s completely unacceptable. Among UK Muslims, disapproval is 100%. . . . [T]hat’s from a sample of . . . 500 people who all happened to agree unanimously.’ The study he’s describing is The Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations, which examines social attitudes of UK Muslims, comparing them with the general populace’s and of those in Germany and France. The part in question shows participants’ answers when prompted, ‘Tell me whether you PERSONALLY BELIEVE that [homosexual acts are] MORALLY acceptable or MORALLY wrong?’

‘Acceptable’ responses among Muslims ranged from 35 percent in France to 19 percent in Germany and none in Britain.

1

Among the general public, the same responses numbered 78 percent in France, 68 percent in German and 58 percent in Britain. The stark gulf between general British views and those of Muslims makes more sense framed as the product of two general rules: British attitudes are significantly more conservative than those in Germany and (especially) France, and Muslim attitudes more conservative than non-Muslims’, so British Muslims are correspondingly the most conservative group polled.

Whatever else we might say about these figures, it’s notable they contradict in several ways Condell’s assertion that ‘there’s nothing nuanced about the Islamic position’, since ‘Islam will never be remotely gay-friendly’ and isn’t ‘open to persuasion on the matter’, as well as his treatment of British Muslims as representative of Islam at large. Among Islam’s followers, views can and do vary, in line not just with country of residence but also with country of origin and/or ethnicity.

‘Sex between an unmarried man and woman’, on the next page of the study, was deemed morally acceptable by only three percent of British Muslims, compared with 27 percent of those in Germany and 48 percent of those in France, a similar difference of views to that on homosexual acts. Chris Green of the Independent writes that ‘this discrepancy is likely to be caused by the fact that British Muslims mainly originate from rural parts of conservative Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, whereas French and German Muslims tend to be from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey‘.

The second point here, moving toward a commentary on the actual views voiced by participants, is that these questions’ formatting is rather odd. Particularly given Gallup later adopt a scaled, 1-5 answering system to gauge support for certain actions (see below), I don’t know why they offer only two possible answers here, forcing individuals polled to call homosexual acts and other examples either ‘morally acceptable’ or ‘morally wrong’. Views in all populations are almost certainly less binary than this – of the 500 British Muslims all of whom ticked ‘morally wrong’ on homosexual acts, how many found them ‘absolutely morally wrong’ (comparable to, say, murder) versus ‘somewhat morally wrong’ or ‘not morally preferable’ (comparable to, say, lying)? If all 500 found homosexual acts analogous with murder or deserving of hanging, results would be the same as if they all found them analogous with telling lies.

Moreover, how does this formatting accommodate participants whose views are neutral or uncertain, when no ‘Unsure/Don’t know’ option is given? Given the general public’s view on this was less than 60-40 in favour of ‘acceptable’, a surprisingly low ratio in itself, it seems plausible respondents who felt no strong attraction to either answer were likelier to opt for ‘morally wrong’ than ‘morally acceptable’, though I’d like to see this properly investigated; certainly, in view of the overwhelmingly conservative leanings of the Muslim population, I can imagine some indifferent or indecisive Muslims defaulting to ‘wrong’ over ‘acceptable’. We can’t know how common this was because the question’s formatting is imprecise, and I wouldn’t like to speculate, but it’s worth considering. Certainly, Condell’s claim the 500 British Muslims surveyed ‘happened to agree unanimously’ implies a greater degree of consensus than was likely the case.

Finally and most importantly, the ‘homosexual acts’ question does not measure disgust around homosexuality or support for ‘zero tolerance’ approaches (this phrase, used in the Guardian and by Condell, is suggestive of hardline stances on crime) – it doesn’t measure tolerance at all, including stances on criminalisation, and it definitely doesn’t measure how many people (Muslims among them) support flogging, imprisonment or death for homosexual acts.

It’s quite possible, common in fact, to find something morally wrong but oppose its prohibition. Among members of the British public Gallup surveyed, 45 percent called abortion morally wrong and 85 percent called ‘married men and women having an affair’ morally wrong:

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While we can’t compare results side by side from separate polls – different polls have different sample groups, questions, orders of questions and so on – research elsewhere shows comprehensively, and as one would expect, that only small minorities of Britons want either to be criminalised. (2-11 percent for abortion, according to various polls collated by Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report; 12 percent for adultery according to a YouGov survey.)

This effect is especially in evidence among religious groups. Catholics might, for instance, find contraception morally wrong while supporting its availability to those who wanted it; Jews might consider eating pork immoral without wanting it banned from supermarkets. Further, if we wouldn’t assume the 42 percent of the British public who called homosexual acts morally wrong support their recriminalisation, let alone violence toward or execution of those committing them, we shouldn’t assume Muslims who gave the same answer support this.

So far, then: Islamic attitudes to homosexuality, while predominantly negative, remain visibly varied, with over a third of German Muslims finding it morally acceptable. Islam is as malleable as any religion, and consensus among believers can and does change over time and between countries. British Muslims in particular unanimously describe homosexual acts as morally wrong rather than morally acceptable according to Gallup, but don’t necessarily oppose their legality or social permissibility.

The emphasis on ‘MORALLY’ of Gallup’s staff when carrying out its poll suggests to me the question is meant to gauge specifically religious attitudes to homosexual acts, rather than what participants thought the civic or social status of those acts should be – nonetheless, it’s very possible interpretation of the question varied. That it was the first one asked seems likely not to have helped this. Believers might understand moral acceptability differently having been asked already about secular social concerns like speeding on the motorway or refusing to vote from how they would after answering specifically religious ‘morality’ questions – condoms or expressions like ‘Oh my God’ for Catholics, sausages or writing ‘God’ for Jews, alcohol or interest-paying for Muslims and so on.

We know 100 percent of Muslims polled called homosexual acts morally wrong, considering them at least to be sinful, but can’t automatically read this as a statement about gay or human rights in a broader social/legal context – for data on this front, we have to look elsewhere.

Sharia, British law and LGBT/human rights

One headline-making survey from YouGov two years ago (Gallup’s data was collected in 2008, and in specified cases 2006-7) gauges agreement across various social strata with the phrase ‘I am proud of how Britain treats gay people’. It seems sensible to treat this as a measure of support for LGBT legal and social rights in the UK, assuming most people considered Britain to treat gay people well – one annoying aspect of this poll was that it didn’t cross-reference by sexual/gender identity, so we don’t know how many LGBT people were surveyed who disagreed because they felt they weren’t treated well enough or hadn’t enough rights. (Bear in mind this is from 2011, before Britain introduced gay marriage.)

On the page surveying various religions, Muslims are tied with Anglicans and Episcopalians as the second-most agreeable faith group (behind Sikhs) at 47 percent agreement each, though Muslims were also slightly more likely (by 19 percent to 12) to disagree.

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I include this poll largely because it was cited widely by the left as evidence of Muslims supporting LGBT rights in Britain (even while, according to Gallop, considering homosexual acts to be condemned by their religion – the same essentially secularist, if not-unproblematic position advanced by Mehdi Hasan this May). Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy, for instance, headlined news of YouGov’s findings as ‘Muslims prouder of gay rights than others‘ and wrote, noting its relationship with Gallup’s data, ‘Muslims can agree that Islam does not tolerate homosexuality, while celebrating gay rights enshrined in the law’; LGBT site Pink News, cited by Owen Jones, called the data evidence Muslims are proud of Britain’s gay rights record.

I’m actually extremely hesitant about this interpretation, though no more than any other, for the simple reason this was a poll of 2088 Britons of whom only 42 were Muslims – the margin of error in this subcategory is therefore very wide, particularly as compared to Anglicans (648 were polled) or the non-religious (355). The average error margin for surveys of 1000 people by major pollsters is +/-2-3 percent; for surveys or crossbreaks of 100, it can be as wide as +/-10 percent. Numbers for almost all groups mentioned here are therefore close to meaningless in and of themselves, though they may be useful signs further research is needed: even accounting for the tiny sample size, we’d expect significantly less diversity among Muslim opinion if Condell’s characterisation of them as invariably opposed to gay people’s rights were accurate. (Still, I’d advise extreme caution about trying to extrapolate anything from this table except about non-religious people, Anglicans and perhaps Catholics.)

Where else to turn, then? In 2009, a research group of four in Birmingham (two Pakistani Muslims, two white non-Muslims) polled 1511 Muslims in Alum Rock, a Muslim-dominated part of the city. While I’m usually inclined to take amateur polls with a heavy pinch of salt, their survey work is impressive – the questions, while not always formatted with much nuance, are clear and unbiased, and the sample size is the biggest by far of all polls under discussion here.

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Asked ‘If your son/daughter came out as gay, would you accept them?’, 1487 participants – that is, 98 percent – answered ‘Yes’. While all Gallup’s British Muslims found homosexual acts morally wrong, then, popular views of them as sinful don’t seem necessarily to impact on behaviour toward gay people. It’s a shame the only survey here to give control data from other religious groups was the unreliable one on ‘how Britain treats gay people’: I’d imagine that among Christians who found homosexual acts immoral, for example, answers to questions like this would be fairly similar. (More on the Birmingham data below.)

Another YouGov poll, this time of 632 Muslim and 831 non-Muslim students in Britain during 2008 (the same year most of Gallup’s work was done), asked respondents how much respect they had for Jewish people, atheists and homosexuals.

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Crossbreaks here are generally – particularly for men and women, and unlike those of the previous poll – large enough, the questions straightforward enough and the answers accommodating enough (unlike in parts of Gallup’s poll) for results to be firmly reliable. They’re also, as it happens, interesting.

Perhaps surprisingly, non-Muslims are ten percent less likely than Muslims (by 56 percent to 66) to respect atheists as much as anyone else. (Muslims are also more likely to have no or not very much respect for atheists, by 11 to 2 percent, but in both cases these are small minorities, and ‘not very much respect’ covers everything between ‘no respect at all’ and ‘the same as anyone else’.)

The same isn’t true for Jewish people: non-Muslims, by 81 to 59 percent, are likelier to have the same respect for them as anyone else, although the numbers of each who have little to no respect are close enough (four percent among Muslims, seven percent among non-Muslims) to be statistically indistinct when error margins are considered – it’s the Muslims who aren’t sure (14 percent, versus 2 percent among non-Muslims) and those who have ‘a lot of respect’ for Jewish people (16 percent, versus 9) who chip away at the ‘same amount’ figure.

On ‘homosexuals’ specifically, Muslims had the same amount of respect as for other people significantly less often than do non-Muslims, by 53 percent to 77, and were dramatically more likely (by 25 to 4 percent) to have little or no respect. Factoring Muslims who have ‘a lot of respect’ or ‘a little respect’ (which from its placement I assume to mean a little more respect than average) for ‘homosexuals’, 62 percent in total have a positive view of their status, compared with a quarter whose attitude is decidedly negative; the remaining 13 percent are unsure.

While it’s probably coincidental considering the previous YouGov poll’s unreliability, the two paint quite a similar picture of a Muslim population polarised on how it views gay people, with a significant minority staunchly opposed but a large number (62 percent here) supportive and the rest undecided. If at first it seems concerning that none of the 632 polled identified themselves as gay or lesbian, only five percent among of the 831 non-Muslims did, numbers well within each other’s error margin. Considering that being either a Jew, an atheist or a ‘homosexual’ is proscribed under traditional and currently dominant versions of Islam (in the latter case, considered morally wrong by all British Muslims Gallup surveyed), we can probably interpret respondents’ declaration of respect for them as support for their legal/human rights, including gay people’s.

The only thing which might affect how much we can read into this poll is that all its participants were students. It’s unclear, perhaps unexpectedly, in which direction this is likely to skew data: earlier in the poll, only 33 percent said when asked that their perception of Islam was very different (11 percent) or fairly different (22 percent) from their parents’, of whom 73 percent (i.e. 24 percent overall) called their parents stricter Muslims than they were, compared with 18 percent (5 percent overall) who said their parents were more liberal.

Assuming they have an accurate perception of their parents’ stances, which seems likely, this suggests the poll’s results are more or less representative of Muslim sentiment at large, with a slight liberal bias. (One other possibility is that Muslims who don’t go to university, or whose children don’t, have significantly different views – this feels plausible, but I’m not sure how to test for it on current data, so for now it’s just conjecture. Moreover, it’s hard to guess just what the difference would look like – on the one hand, we might expect university-educated people to be broader-minded; on the other hand, universities are often, not entirely without basis, accused of being targeted as breeding grounds for Islamist fundamentalism.)

Conversely, data collected by Populus and presented in Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism, a report by conservative think tank Policy Exchange, shows Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 consistently to support more radical positions than their older counterparts, especially those aged over 45. (The Centre for Social Cohesion, for whom YouGov surveyed the students, was run by Douglas Murray and also widely perceived as a rightist group, so we can’t attribute these contrasting findings about Muslim youth’s attitudes to opposite political agendas. In almost all cases, in fact, shouting ‘Right wing think tank!’ is a very bad way to dismiss reputable polling firms’ results when unaccompanied by substantive commentary on survey methods.)

Asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘If I could choose, I would prefer to live in Britain under sharia law rather than British law’, 37 percent of Muslims between 16 and 24 agreed and 50 percent disagreed, compared with 28 and 59 percent among Muslims generally. (Among those over 45, only 16-17 percent agreed while 75 percent disagreed.)

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It’s worth noting that Policy Exchange’s final report only shows net ‘Agree’/’Disagree’ figures, conflating participants’ views who said they ‘tend to (dis)agree’ and that they ‘strongly (dis)agree’.

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This is in itself slightly misleading: while one might think results were simply being summarised in brief, I’d be willing to bet that had the same sample group been asked ‘Do you agree OR disagree with the statement, “I would prefer to live in Britain under sharia law rather than British law”?’, answers would have looked at least slightly different. More importantly, it’s clear those who disagreed did so more strongly than those who agreed. More than half as many participants again strongly preferred British law to those who only tended to prefer it, whereas about equal numbers ‘tended to prefer’ sharia and preferred it ‘strongly’.

Polls on sharia exemplify the press’s habit of sensationalising complex data with misleading headlines. In 2006, for instance, the Telegraph reported on an ICM poll conducted for its Sunday edition with the header ‘Poll reveals 40pc of Muslims want sharia law in UK‘. What ICM actually found looked like this:

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The first point is that, while it’s technically true 40 percent supported sharia’s introduction, an almost exactly equal number (41 percent) were opposed to it. (Again, the question offers a binary choice – we can only guess whether strength of feeling follows the same pattern Populus identified.) 18 percent also said they didn’t know, suggesting they hadn’t thought enough about what the introduction of sharia law would be like to have a clear opinion on it. A fairer headline, then, would have been something like ‘Muslims divided over sharia in UK’.

More to the point, the association most non-Muslims have with sharia law operating in Britain is the kind of Salafi-style transformation of the UK into a theocratic, totalitarian state like Saudi Arabia or Iran warned of in high-pitched tones by Pat Condell and figures like him. What this question describes, particularly given how UK sharia courts caused a lot of (not unjustified) press furore in 2006 when the poll was published, seems much closer to a parallel legal system for Muslims, contained within the wider infrastructure of British law much like arbitration over workers’ disputes or global trade – these are the kind of things, in fact, that the Arbitration Act 1996 was drafted to govern whose support sharia courts now claim.

There’s obviously still a lot to be concerned about here from a secularist point of view (for the most part, I’m trying to keep personal views out of this post and focus on what polls show), but the issues aren’t necessarily the ones we might assume. Specifically, Muslims who say they support introduction of sharia can’t automatically be said to support British law’s nationwide replacement with rules based on Islamic texts – further, they certainly can’t be assumed to hold a particular view either on whether homosexuality should be prohibited under sharia or whether it should be punished with floggings, imprisonment, execution or at all.

Populus did ask a question gauging agreement with orthodox views on sharia law, in particular ones relating to marriage, conversion and sexuality. While the sample of 191 Muslims between 16 and 24 (compared with 1003 overall) has a wider-than-average error margin, they were significantly more likely than Muslims at large (by 71 to 61 percent) to agree with the statement ‘homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal’. (Bear in mind that the survey switches at this point, for no apparent reason, from asking about degrees of agreement – ‘tend to’ versus ‘strongly’ and so on – to a simple ‘Agree’/’Disagree’ format, and all the potential effects this might have.)

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Similarly to the point about the meaning of sharia’s introduction, we need to ask what ‘illegal’ means here. 61 percent agree with scholarly tradition that homosexuality should be illegal, but we don’t know exactly what this implies – it might be illegal under sharia law as understood by historical authorities, but then if supporters of sharia today want it as a parallel court system specific to Muslims rather than a top-down national body of law, replacing current legislation, this very possibly isn’t the same kind of ‘illegal’ as burglary or copyright infringement. If nothing else, we certainly don’t know what its consequences would be.

Participants in the Birmingham poll of Muslims were asked both whether they’d like to live under sharia themselves and whether it should apply to non-Muslims. Only 21 percent said they’d like to live under it, and only 2 percent said it should apply to non-Muslims.

1Asked about their attitude to homosexuality and adultery – both things prohibited by orthodox understandings of sharia – respondents’ collective answers on both issues were exactly the same: only 1 percent supporting stoning, and only two percent supporting any kind of punishment. (For reporting purposes, both these results can be glossed as ‘practically none’ when margins for error are considered – in other words, the difference of one percent is probably meaningless.)

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These figures necessarily include the fifth of participants in the study who said they’d like to live under sharia – so while, in line with Gallup’s findings, they might consider homosexuality to be frowned on in Islam, they oppose the treatment of it we’d usually (and correctly) associate with sharia states.

Among its less specific findings, the Populus poll also shows significant support for reinterpretation of sharia according to human (e.g. LGBT) rights and other ‘modern ideas’:

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Slightly more Muslims polled (45 percent) said sharia should be reinterpreted in line with human rights concerns than said it was sacred and fixed (39 percent), though again the true figures may be about the same. It’s hard to guess how this gels in reality with the views measured by the homosexuality question (and adjacent ones on orthodox sharia positions), and it’s annoying that we don’t know how these findings show up when compared with desire to live under sharia rather than British law – Populus missed a trick, I think, by not asking the ‘reinterpretation’ question separately to participants based on their answer there. (Are the 28 percent who said they’d rather live under sharia contained within the 45 percent who think it should be reinterpreted, or are supporters of reform opposed to living under sharia because they don’t consider it to have been interpreted the right way in its current form?) What is clear is that there’s around 40 percent support both for strict/hardline interpretations and for modernising approaches, further illustrating Muslims to be far from agreed on what institutionalised sharia should look like in Britain.

Compare these findings to YouGov’s poll of students for the Centre for Social Cohesion – remember, this is the survey where 62 percent respected ‘homosexuals’ at least as much as other people. Asked ‘How supportive if at all would you be of the official introduction of Shari’ah Law into British law for Muslims?’, responses were extremely mixed.

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The Daily Mail‘s coverage of this study as a whole was spectacularly misrepresentative, dressing it up as ‘a survey revealed by the WikiLeaks’ publication of U.S. diplomatic cables’ when in fact YouGov had published it two years before (as is the norm for polling) and claiming ’40% [of Muslim students] want Sharia law’, conspicuously dropping ‘for Muslims’ to tap into the same paranoia as the Telegraph. In fact, 21 percent of participants were ‘very supportive’, 19 percent ‘fairly supportive’, 16 percent ‘not very supportive’ and 21 percent ‘not at all supportive’, with ’23 percent’ – the most popular category – ‘not sure’.

All these figures are within each others’ error margins, so it’s sensible to treat the numbers as the same to practical extents. Moreover, I’m strongly suspicious of the formatting, which smacks more than anything else in all these polls of an agenda: why is there no neutral option in the middle? Responders who were ambivalent, equally supportive and opposed – which isn’t the same as being unsure – were clearly forced to choose between declaring themselves ‘fairly’ or ‘not very’ supportive, of which the former sounds much more balanced. (A ‘fairly full’ glass, to use a clichéd image, could be either half-empty or half-full; a ‘not very full’ glass sounds distinctly like it has less water in it.)

The same poll’s supplementary questions on religion and government, even adjusting for the sample group’s slight liberal bias, suggested very little support for a violent, theocratic or fundamentalist version of Islam. 68 percent said Islam was fairly or very compatible with ‘the Western notion of democracy’, while a further 19 percent said they weren’t sure. Only 13 percent said it was fairly or very incompatible, and 43 percent said it was fairly or very compatible with ‘the separation of religion and government’, whereas 28 percent said it was incompatible and 29 said they weren’t sure.

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Extraordinarily high numbers of ‘Not sure’ answers are a recurring aspect of this poll – again, they suggest to me that answerers just didn’t have strong concepts of what things like ‘the separation of religion and government’ actually meant. (Not all that encouraging for secularists, but on the other hand, we might expect committed theocrats or fundamentalists to recognise the term.) Nowhere is this more evident than in answers to the question, ‘How supportive if at all would you be of the introduction of a worldwide Caliphate based on Shari’ah Law?’, where 41 percent said they were unsure. Like most questions on sharia being implemented, this would benefit from greater specificity, but while a hardline hump of about 20 percent seems to persist throughout this poll, two thirds of participants are either unsure (not knowing, I’d guess, what ‘a worldwide Caliphate based on Shari’ah’ would look like, thus probably not supporting it) or unsupportive.

What may be a useful predictor of views on homosexuality and LGBT rights is that while half of participants said they’d be ‘fairly’ or ‘very unsupportive’ if a friend wanted to leave Islam (compared with a quarter each who’d be supportive or were unsure), only 6 percent said they should be punished according to sharia, and only half those people said the punishment should be death. The hardline hump, then, is obviously only so hardline, and I’d guess somewhat tentatively that apostasy and homosexuality, both being traditionally prohibited, would be viewed the same way, just as homosexuality and adultery were in the Birmingham Muslims poll.

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The Populus poll for Policy Exchange seems to be a bit of an outlier viewed as part of a bigger picture, then, although I’m not sure what’s determining the discrepancy in its results from other polls’, particularly this one’s. Both are studies by respectable polling firms for centre-right think tanks, conducted with large sample sizes – there are some problems I’d identify with their phrasing and formatting, as with most of these polls, but they don’t account for the difference in findings, and the student poll (contrary to what one might expect, perhaps) seems to fall more in line with broader data than Policy Exchange’s.

It may come down to something circumstantial in their methods which I haven’t noticed or they fail to mention – how they polled participants (in person, by telephone or online, for instance), how sample groups were selected and so on. This is the kind of area where a professional polling expert’s view would be much more useful than mine. What we can say, however, is that none of the data supports Pat Condell’s views, either that Islam is set in stone and unaccommodating of diverse views or that Muslims are opposed to human rights or humane treatment of gay people.

Although support for sharia law exists among British Muslims, this appears only to be the view of a significant minority ranging between surveys from approximately 20 to 40 percent (for comparison, about the same as the proportion of the general populace who vote for any of the major parties). Moreover, while advocacy for Iranian-style theocracy does exist among a few percent of British Muslims (see the polls in full for this), sharia as endorsed by these 20-40 percent seems to be understood best as a court or arbitration system specifically for Muslims rather than as the overthrow of Britain’s current political and human rights regimes.

More and better research is needed to determine exactly what most Muslims consider the requirements of sharia to be, including specifically on homosexuality – views here seem to vary – but large majorities support non-religious mainstream law outside Muslim communities, including established human and LGBT rights, and equally large if not larger majorities voice attitudes of acceptance and respect toward gay people, even while dominant understandings of Islam in the UK consider homosexual acts immoral. The people actually endangered by Islamic attitudes to sexuality in Britain are LGBT people within the so-called Muslim community whom Condell ignores while smearing them and it in general. (More on this in the blow-by-blow response, coming up next.)

Violence in the name of religion

The final claim to address is that Britain’s Muslims, irrespective of their stance on gay people’s legal or human rights, are supportive of violent, criminal homophobic attacks. To quote, ‘The more Islam there is in a society, the more physically dangerous it’s likely to be for gay people. In parts of Europe with high Muslim immigrant populations, we know that openly gay men are far more likely to be attacked and beaten up on the street for being gay. And there’s a good reason why they don’t hold gay pride marches down Brick Lane.’ (At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, everything about this is categorically and completely wrong, but a full rebuttal is beyond this one post’s scope. Sit tight, it’s coming.)

Assuming the amount of Islam in a society is measured by the number of Muslims, and it’s hard to see how else to quantify it clearly, research on Muslim attitudes to anti-gay attacks specifically, beyond things like the Birmingham poll’s question on stoning ‘homosexuals’, is hard to come by. (If anyone knows of any that I don’t, please let me know.) What we do however have – including in Gallup’s report, the lone one cited by Condell – is consistent polling evidence Muslims are by and large strongly opposed to violence.

Asking respondents to answer on a scale of 1-5 between ‘Cannot be justified at all’ and ‘Completely justifiable’ (if only they’d done that on the ‘homosexual acts’ question), French, German and British Muslims in 2008 were asked to rate numerous actions, among them ‘attacks in which civilians are the target’. Overwhelming majorities in all three countries answered in opposition.

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99 percent of British Muslims said either that such attacks ‘cannot be justified at all’ (89 percent) or rated them a ’2′, which I imagine we could gloss as something like ‘Only justifiable in exceptional circumstances’ (10 percent). The remaining one percent answered ’3′, whose precise meaning Gallup’s researchers queried. The only figure anywhere higher than Britain’s was the 91 percent of German Muslims who answered ‘Cannot be justified at all’, but the difference of only 2 percent is statistically negligible. While British Muslims may have considered homosexual acts most immoral, they were also the most opposed to attacks on civilians.

We can’t interpret this on its own as conclusive, of course, since ‘attacks in which civilians are the target’, while strictly speaking still descriptive of homophobic assaults, is more suggestive either of terrorist activity targeting the West (suicide bombings etc.) or military activity abroad (drone strikes on villages, etc.). Also, no control figures from the general public were given in this question, making a direct comparison difficult – Gallup does, however, cite identical polling from 2006 and 2007 in which nationwide publics in all three countries were compared with Muslims in their capital cities.

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London Muslims in this period were slightly more sympathetic to civilian attacks than British non-Muslims, but nothing like significantly: 92 percent of the public rated them ‘not justifiable’, a 1 or 2 on the scale of response, compared with 88 percent of Muslims in the capital, but sample error could easily account for this. What does seem noticeable, though again it could conceivably be sample variation, is that 9 percent of London Muslims gave a ’3′, compared with only 3 percent of the public, showing perhaps more hesitance to answer such a generalised question. We don’t, of course, have data specifically for non-Muslims in London at this time: I’m not sure it would tell us anything very different, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

On ‘use of violence for a noble cause’, an answer which more conceivably could include homophobic assaults (and a much wider range of actions generally) British Muslims were more sympathetic than those in Germany or France – or rather, more polarised.

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While answers of 2, 3 and 6 were about the same across the board, only 48 percent of British Muslims answered ‘Cannot be justified at all’ compared with 75 percent in France and 80 percent in Germany, and 31 percent answered with ’4′ (something like ‘Often but not always justifiable’) compared to only 1 percent in both European nations.

This is exactly the kind of finding – though in this case, the ‘homosexual acts’ question jumped the gun – that tends to be shouted in panicked tones by the right wing press, as if to suggest Muslims support jihadism, but the previous question almost certainly rules this out: Muslims are almost all categorically opposed to attacks targeting civilians, so it seems extremely likely those who rated ‘violence for a noble cause’ a 4 (this is where numbers answering ’1′ have gone, compared with European figures) had something other than terrorism in mind. Crucially, this question isn’t specifically religious: one commonly cited example of violence justified by a good cause would be the Second World War; mine would be the Stonewall Riots.

All we can reliably conclude from this is that British Muslims are less likely to be pacifists than those in Germany or France, which if trends between countries resemble those on sexuality may not be at all unique to them. Control data for the general population would once again be useful here for just this reason – it’s given in the 2006/7 equivalent question, whose results are curiously different.

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Whereas among Muslims throughout Britain in 2008, only 51 percent called violence for a noble cause unjustifiable (compared with 37 percent who called it justifiable and 13 percent in between), 81 percent of London Muslims in 2006 and 2007 found it unjustifiable, compared with 8 percent for unjustifiable and 11 percent in between – not significantly different from the British public’s views in the latter cases, and nine percent higher on the ‘unjustifiable’ count.

I’ve struggled to account for the discrepancy between the 2006/7 and 2008 results. While the ‘homosexual acts’ data was dramatic, it was also in keeping with established patterns in the data; the difference between Muslim views in these cases (especially in view of questions’ wording and formatting, and presumably administration of the survey, being identical), seems totally anomalous. One possibility I have considered is that since Muslims in capital cities seem more often to have been against all forms of violence, Muslims in London – especially while being polled self-consciously as Muslims in London – may have been primed to interpret ‘violence for a noble cause’ specifically in relation to things like the 7/7 attacks, quite plausibly more of a presence in public consciousness there than across the country. I don’t know though, and I’m very reluctant to advance any solid interpretation without 2008 data from the general public for comparison.

Taking a quick detour, the Centre for Social Cohesion’s YouGov poll of Muslim students included a (widely and badly) reported question specifically on killing in the name of religion. Again, we can’t compare different polls’ numbers side by side, but it may serve to address the question of how many Muslims support religiously motivated violence in particular, which presumably would cover homophobic attacks.

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1 in 3 British Muslim students back killing for Islam‘ the Mail reported when the poll came out, perhaps the greatest and most outrageous misrepresentation of any data here. While 32 percent did say killing in the name of religion could be justifiable, only 4 percent answered ‘Yes in order to preserve and promote that religion’ – i.e. the kind of violence that commonly makes headlines when fundamentalists plant bombs.

The other 28 percent answered ‘Yes but only if that religion is under attack’, an annoyingly vague statement – what constitutes an attack on a religion? (Most people would, I think, call Muslim participation in the Crusades a justifiable response to being attacked; on the other hand, the Christian right in Britain regularly describes itself as ‘under attack’ when prayers aren’t part of council meetings and so on, so I can’t help thinking this question feels obfuscatory by design. Additionally, the formatting of the question gives no other opportunity for a ‘Yes, sometimes’ answer that doesn’t fall into the ‘preserve and promote’ category, as for instance a more neutral, open-ended statement like ‘Yes, but only in extreme/exceptional circumstances’ would have allowed.) 53 percent answered that killing for religion was never, in any circumstances, justifiable, and given the other findings of this same poll (high levels of respect for ‘homosexuals’ in particular) I’d find it very odd if more than negligible numbers supported killing gay people.

Treating Gallup’s 2008 figures as anomalous, then, what’s obvious is that Muslim populations are likely to be opposed in principle to any kind of violence, presumably including homophobic violence. We can’t compare urban Muslims with nationwide non-Muslims head-for-head, but the trend for 2006-7 Muslims to be more opposed to violence than the general public may be confirmed by Gallup’s finding that particularly religious Muslims were at least as likely to oppose it as less religious ones – possibly more so, though figures are close enough to be treated as the same.

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In all three countries surveyed, participants who said Islam was important them displayed slightly higher rates of conviction that ‘violence for a noble cause cannot be justified at all’ than those who said it wasn’t important. The 7 percent differential for British Muslims, in fact, is the highest of the lot. All these numbers are near enough that repeat polls might reverse or equalise them, but it’s obviously not true that Muslims’ religiosity makes them more likely to condone violence.

On top of the fact Muslims in general are especially predisposed to pacifism in Gallup’s research – again, the only research Condell actually cites – it may just be possible that how heavily religious they are correlates with how non-violent they are, if only slightly. All this is pretty damning news for the claim Muslims at large endorse homophobic attacks, and given he deems its source authoritative enough to mention no other polls, he has no excuse not to withdraw that claim.

Conclusion

All the data analysed in this post is available online, and I recommend you read it in full yourself (particularly before making wild, unsupported assertions about what polls show Muslims think.) Here they are in order of appearance:

For those who’ve skipped to the bottom, as a tl;dr summary, the landscape they suggest can I think be distilled as follows:

  • Muslim attitudes are often highly varied, in some cases powerfully polarised, including on questions of sexuality.
  • Determinants of this variation, in addition to other less obvious ones, include nationality, ethnicity and age.
  • All of these, age in particular, challenge the view conservative and fundamentalist approaches to Islam are ‘imports’ through recent immigration; their followers are often young, born or raised in Britain, more ‘strict’ or ‘radical’ than prior generations.
  • Most if not all British Muslims consider homosexual acts ‘morally wrong’ over ‘morally acceptable’, but large majorities in various polls tend to express respect, acceptance or otherwise humane responses to gay people.
  • Supporters of sharia law are not an ‘extremist fringe’ as some have claimed, but are a clear minority, with most surveys showing them at somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of Muslims.
  • More and better polling is required on what exactly sharia supporters understand it or its (ideal) function to be in Britain, but advocates almost always desire it as a Muslim-specific legal system within Britain rather than a totalitarian alternative to the country’s current governance.
  • Further, strong appetites exist for reform or reinterpretation of sharia in line with contemporary views on human (and LGBT) rights, although it’s unclear what the relationship of ‘sharia reformers’ to ‘sharia advocates’ is.
  • Muslim support for extreme draconian punishments and human rights abuses such as the Iranian government’s executions by stoning or hanging is extremely low most of the time.
  • More broadly, Muslims are by and large extremely unlikely ever to find violence justifiable, though Muslims polled by Gallup across Britain in 2008 were an unexplained exception to this. (This does not, however, suggest support for terrorism or homophobic attacks, and other data explicitly suggests a near-universal lack of support in these areas.)
  • All of us – think tanks, journalists, agitators on the right and left, opponents of Islam, defenders of Muslims and people who are both – need to become more literate in polling analysis, more willing to survey the bigger picture and less exploitative of polls as propaganda.
  • Polling companies need to be more judicious about wording, formatting and research methods, refusing to use biased or imprecise techniques when agreeing questions with clients (especially those, like newspapers or think tanks, with particular outlooks).
  • Numerous points raised by research above are legitimately concerning for secularists and human rights campaigners – not just the minority of Muslims supporting fundamentalist or violent practices, but the view itself that queer sexuality is immoral (even when no structuralised oppression follows this belief) and the support and continued operation of sharia courts as parallel, separate legal institutions in the so-called Muslim community.
  • These concerns are not well dealt with by smearing, homogenising and misrepresenting Muslims generally, and sensationalist xenophobia which characterises the presence of Muslims as a major threat to ‘the British way of life’ is both unfounded and unhelpful: non-Muslims (or those outside the ‘Muslim community’) are directly threatened very little by the issues above, whereas Muslim women, LGBT Muslims and other parts of that community marginalised by conservative religious tendencies are strongly affected.
  • Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems.
  • Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.

See also: Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade

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