Thomas Sutcliffe: Silence will not dispel suspicion and fear

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A striking poll was published last week - though given how striking its findings were, "published" is perhaps too strong a term for the somewhat sporadic coverage it received. At best it received a brief mention in the press, at worst it gained no coverage at all on most television or radio stations.

This seemed a little odd given that the Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed that British Muslims are more at odds with the society in which they live than Muslims polled in Germany, France and Spain. What was more intriguing still was that this was the case despite the fact that tolerance and respect for Muslim society was found to be higher in Great Britain than in any of those continental countries.

The poll had been specifically designed to map the contours of a mutual suspicion and mistrust, but what it uncovered in Britain was a significant asymmetry. The London bombings had caused a modest decline in positive opinions of Muslims - down from 72 per cent to 63 per cent - but when asked whether they associated Muslims with negative characteristics such as violence, fanaticism or arrogance the British public were still far less inclined to say "yes" than the Spanish or the French.

This forebearance did not appear to be reciprocated: 64 per cent of British Muslims think of people in Western countries as arrogant and 67 per cent that they are selfish - much higher figures than in Germany, France or Spain.

In Britain, at least, these qualities appear to take an unusual form: asked whether Muslims or non-Muslims are to blame for bad relations between the two communities, 27 per cent of the general public blamed western society (as opposed to 25 per cent who blamed Muslims). A strange kind of arrogance, that ... and not matched by Muslim respondents - 11 per cent of whom blame fellow Muslims against 48 per cent who blame the West.

Even more unnervingly the survey found that just 17 per cent of British Muslims believed that Arabs had been involved in the attacks of 11 September 2001, as opposed to 56 per cent who dismissed the possibility - figures that were a match for opinion in many Muslim countries, and actually exceeded the degree of scepticism expressed by the Jordanian public.

I confess I didn't entirely believe this finding - and found myself wondering whether the 412 British Muslims who answered the phone that day and had nothing better to do were unusually skewed towards a conspiracist mindset. But, even allowing for a fairly wide margin of error, the broad conclusion seemed clear. British Muslims seem to be more resentful, more alienated and more suspicious than their continental counterparts.

There are a number of things you might say about this. It might not be true, for one thing ... although the Pew Global Attitudes Project (co-chaired by Madeleine Albright) doesn't appear to have any axe to grind and its methodology is laid out perfectly clearly.

It is also the case that the findings might be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps Spanish Muslims are so cowed by the hostility of their fellow citizens that they are bending over backwards to appear integrated and unthreatening. Perhaps what the general public in Britain tells pollsters doesn't match how they actually behave.

But the thing you wouldn't say, I would have thought, is nothing at all. If the results are an accurate reflection of the mismatch between secular and Islamic society in this country, then they surely should be addressed as rather serious. If they are inaccurate, then they constitute a group libel which you might have expected Muslim leaders to repudiate noisily. In either case, silence is surely the worst option.

A better class of graffiti

Bristol City Council have responded to the arrival of a new work by the graffiti artist Banksy, left, by asking locals whether they want it to stay, or whether they want it removed in line with general council policy on graffiti. If only my council was as enlightened. A large painting recently appeared on the approach to the local station - and it lowers my spirits every time I pass it with its banality and brutal indifference to technical competence. Unfortunately it's the work of a group of primary school children from a nearby council estate, encouraged by a local Lib Dem councillor- so it counts as improvement rather than vandalism. I hate most graffiti. It bears the same relation to art as a shove in the chest does to ballet, but I wish Banksy would pay a nocturnal visit to this stretch of wall.

I felt some sympathy for the Belsize Park family whose door was battered down by armed police after their 15-year-old son had been spotted through the window playing with a pellet gun. It seemed a clear case of over-reaction. Then I saw a picture of the "toy" and the sympathy evaporated. It was a replica of a Hechler and Koch MP5 that, even close up, would have been indistinguishable from the real thing. John Trimbos criticised the police for "heavy-handed tactics" but appeared not to question the wisdom of letting his son unnerve the neighbours with a replica weapon. The implication was that while extreme caution might be OK for some, middle-class types who live in mansion-flats deserve the benefit of the doubt. But isn't it better if the police assume people waving guns are dangerous first, and stupid second - rather than the other way round?