Friday, June 23, 2006

The Great Divide: initial impressions

The Guardian has published details of the Pew Global Attitudes Project's poll of Muslim and non-Muslims attitudes to each other in thirteen countries.

It requires careful reading so I'll restrict myself to a couple of early impressions from this rather depressing picture of mutual suspicion and mistrust.

First is the point raised by the Guardian piece, which shows that in their attitudes to 'Westerners', British Muslims are much more in line with their co-religionists in the Middle East, compared to elsewhere in Europe.

One symptom of this is the extent to which conspiracy theories find a receptive audience. In Britain, for example, only 17% of Muslims believe that Arabs were involved in the 9/11 atrocity - a similar level to that found in Indonesia, Jordan and Pakistan and significantly lower than in Egypt.

While this contrasts quite sharply with beliefs in France and Germany, it's worth noting that nowhere did the Pew survey find a majority of Muslims who were prepared to believe that Arabs were involved in 9/11.

The second point has to do with ideas of public toleration of religious expression and identity. There are a number of ways in which Britain differs from some of the other countries in the survey. In contrast to the United States, Germany, France and Turkey, Britain has no codified constitution that stipulates a formal separation of religion from the state, with the accompanying implications this has, for example, for public education. In addition, Britain was alone amongst the European countries in the survey that did not publish the Mo-Toons.

We can be sure that the usual suspects will use this survey as evidence that Britain's multicultural approach does not work and the assimilationist models of countries like France are better.

This judgment might be a little hasty. One would, presumably, have to factor in Britain's high-profile participation in the War on Terror along with other possible significant variables, such as differing attitudes in the donor countries from which Muslim populations can trace their origin.

Nevertheless, one's initial impression is that these alone are unlikely to account for the widely-differing attitudes in Britain from the rest of the Western countries in the survey. It does not, for example, explain why the picture in Britain is not only different to the rest of Europe but to that of the United States as well.

And there's one observation we can make about what might be termed 'public multiculturalism' without equivocation: perhaps there is evidence that our 'fuzzy' distinction between religion and the state is better for community relations than the formal and legalistic separation practiced in the United States, France, Germany and Turkey - but it certainly cannot be found in this report.

Furthermore, even if one were to accept the 'Bunting interpretation' of this type of constitutional arrangement as representing a form of 'secular triumphalism', people taking this position should now accept that there is scant evidence that this is a particularly significant variable.

Amongst the more positive findings were that support for suicide-murders amongst Muslims is declining significantly across the board, as is 'satisfaction' with Bin Laden. Also, amongst those who responded in the affirmative to the question of whether they saw a struggle between 'moderates' and 'fundamentalists' in Islam - majorities everywhere declined to express their support for the the latter.

However, these fall distinctly into a 'silver-lining' category in an overwhelmingly dark and depressing set of findings. In terms of the original observation made by the Guardian, that 'Westerners' in Britain are more favourably-disposed to Muslims than the other way around, I'm not sure what to make of that. But I'm fairly sure that how various commentators are going to interpret this is going to be depressing in the extreme.

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