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Last Updated: Monday, 29 January 2007, 14:44 GMT
Analysis: Muslim political views
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

A mosque
Increasing religiosity - but does it really conflict with British identity?
What do young Muslims think? That is the issue at the heart of a comprehensive and nuanced poll from Policy Exchange, a right-leaning think tank.

Its report looks at attitudes among Muslims - but its conclusions and warnings need to be carefully unpicked.

Polling company Populus surveyed 1,003 Muslims in the UK and the results support the theory that Muslim identity is strengthening.

Almost nine out of 10 said that their faith was the most important thing in their lives. Some 35% said they would send children to an Islamic school if they had a choice with younger Muslims more likely to say so that older generations.

When asked if they had as much in common with non-Muslims as their co-religionists, older Muslims were more likely to say that they did.

'Modern' Sharia

Some 37% of 16-24-year-olds said they would like to live under Sharia (Islamic) law. Some 7% of the same age group said they "admired organisations like al-Qaeda that are prepared to fight the West".

Almost three quarters of 16-24s said they would prefer women to wear a veil or headscarf, compared with a majority of over-55s being against.

What this points towards is a growing religiosity - and also a political dimension to that identity. But the devil is in the detail.

Take Sharia, for example. Sharia tends to be perceived in the West as an exceptionally cruel punishment system. The reality is that Sharia represents the entire swathe of Islam's equivalent of common law - the rules than underpin society.

The emergence of a strong Muslim identity in Britain is, in part, a result of multicultural policies implemented since the 1980s, which have emphasised difference at the expense of shared national identity
Munira Mirza, report author

It is a lot more complicated than a narrow debate on amputations and public executions in some questionable regimes.

And for most Muslims, it comes into their lives in the realms of family law, Halal food, finance and a general code of behaviour.

So while 37% of the younger age group said they would like to live under Sharia (which the question left undefined) exactly the same proportion said they would also like to see it interpreted to reflect "modern ideas about human rights, equality for women and tolerance of religious conversion".

In other words - they like their faith - but would like some more relevant guidance into how to apply it to their modern lives.

Some 48% of respondents said that British society offers "strong moral and cultural values" - although some 45% said it did not.

And just to make the story even more complicated - more Muslims supported free speech than members of the general population - an issue right at the heart of the Danish Mohammed cartoons row of last year.

Looking for meaning

And it is the tension at the heart of these answers - between a yearning for something to believe in and the seeking for meaning in world events -that is the most important part of the report.

Of the 72 people who said they supported "organisations like Al Qaeda", more than half agreed that Britain offers "strong moral and cultural values" - hardly the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden.

Furthermore, only a narrow majority of this group believed they had more in common with Muslims abroad than non-Muslims at home. A fifth also said the West was not to blame for the world's problems.

The poll found foreign policy was the biggest issue at the ballot box - but some three-quarters of the respondents could name neither the head of the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli Prime Minister.

Key messages

Anecdotal evidence from the grassroots of many Muslim communities shows without a doubt that there is more politicisation and awakening of a stronger more affirmed religious identity. But those religious identities and political views are many and varied.

A Muslim woman wearing a veil
Veil: Religious expression - but is it political?
There is clearly some frustration among some young people - but it is often impossible to work out exactly where that is directed and what is to become of it.

So to talk of the emergence of a monolithic British-Muslim world view that is a danger to society is wide of the mark.

The Policy Exchange report does not talk in such terms and well-placed Muslim thinkers (as opposed to "community leaders") who are now advising government and the security services say this is a key message that ministers need to take on board.

They say the trick is to pick off the extremists while responding to the key local causes of concern that can and do play a part in creating wedges - such as jobs and education. At the same time, they say, that political-religious identity will come down to a long-fought battle for hearts and minds.

Which brings us to what government itself should be doing in the short-term.

The report argues that government is mistakenly making policy for religious identity, rather than citizens. This serves the views of cliques that have an interest in preventing integration and propagating their own world view.

This argument is not discounted by Muslims thinkers who are trying to influence policy.

But they also warn that the last thing that government should do is decide that religious identity cannot exist as a legitimate and useful component of citizenship.

Critically, many say that little can be done to tackle extremism without first dealing with what they say are the big issues that affect many Muslim communities - jobs, education, housing and discrimination.

The danger, they argue, is that alienation will worsen if Britain reacts against outward expressions of faith - while failing to act on the issues that really concern Muslims.

Muslims give their views to pollsters

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