Widespread public acceptance of Britain’s Muslim community runs alongside fears about the development of a divided society, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today. It reveals that voters want Muslims to do more to integrate themselves into mainstream culture.
The poll, carried out in the wake of Jack Straw’s criticism of the full veil worn by some Muslim women, shows voters take a largely relaxed view of British Muslim citizens, despite fears among some community leaders and politicians about social polarisation.
Britain may even be growing more tolerant, with young voters generally more supportive of Muslim opinion than older ones.
But the poll also shows that tolerance is set against a clear belief that integration has not yet gone far enough. Only 22% of voters think that British Muslims have done all they need to in order to fit into mainstream society.
A majority, 57%, believe that Muslims have a responsibility to do more to achieve it. That view is reflected in public support for Mr Straw’s comments on the full veil, or niqab.
Writing last week about his experience in his Blackburn constituency, the Commons leader and former foreign secretary said the full veil was “a visible statement of separation and difference”.
His remarks sparked controversy, with several ministers, including John Prescott, disagreeing.
Today’s poll shows that 53% of voters think Mr Straw was right to suggest that the full veil creates a barrier between Muslim women and other people, with only 36% believing he is wrong on the issue.
Mr Straw also won support this week from Harriet Harman, the constitutional affairs minister, who writes in the current issue of the New Statesman magazine that “if you want equality you have to be in society, not hidden away from it”.
She voices regret that women “whose mothers fought against the veil … now see their daughters taking it up as a symbol of commitment to their religion”.
The poll shows that support for the full veil is stronger among women than men.
A majority of men, 58%, think Mr Straw was right to criticise the full veil, compared with a narrow minority of women, 49%.
The responses also show a clear generational gap in social attitudes. Young people are much less concerned than their parents about Muslim integration.
Only 31% of 18- to 24-year-olds, for example, back Mr Straw on the full veil. That compares with 65% of over-65s.
Overall, voters do not want to see a ban on the wearing of veils outside the home, with 74% opposing restrictions and just 20% saying they favour them.
Opposition to a ban is also stronger among young people than older citizens. Only 62% of over-65s think a public ban on the wearing of the veil would be wrong, against 82% of under-24s.
The research makes it clear that most voters are relaxed about Britain’s Muslim community, despite fears that threat of Islamist terrorism has fuelled intolerance.
An overwhelming majority of voters, 88%, say they would not be anxious about sitting near someone who appears to be Muslim on a train or a bus.
Only 7% of those questioned said they would be anxious, with young voters even more relaxed than older ones.
Asked how they felt about the prospect of a Muslim family moving into a nearby house, a majority, 52%, said they would have no strong opinion one way or the other. The proportion of voters who said they would be happy at the prospect of Muslim neighbours, 12%, slightly outweighs those who would be anxious, 11%.
Some British Muslim groups say there is increasing alienation and discontent among their communities.
They blame anger with British foreign policy, notably in Iraq, alleged negative coverage of Muslims in the media, and a rise in Islamophobia.
Repeated calls for Muslims to do more to integrate by government and media commentators are ultimately counter-productive, according to some with close knowledge of British Muslim thought.
· ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,023 adults by telephone on October 11. Interviews were conducted across the country and results weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Further information at www.icmresearch.co.uk
[tags]islam, islamism, islamic, muslim, muslims, islamic extremism, veil, veils, hijab[/tags]
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