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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 August 2005, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Analysis: UK at ease with Islam?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Multiculturalism: As familiar as fish and chips?
How tolerant is British society? And have the London bombings changed the way we think of each other?

The BBC has conducted a wide poll to try and find out if there has been any change in the nation's views since the terrorist attacks - and what it may mean for the future.

So what does the poll say about Britain? Is this a nation at ease with its multicultural modern face - or one with deep misgivings in the wake of terrorism in London?

We asked 1,004 adults (roughly a standard sample for a national poll) along with a further 204 Muslims for their thoughts on multiculturalism. The first question was whether or not they thought Britain was becoming more or less racially tolerant.

A third of general respondents said we were more racially tolerant; a third of Muslims also reached the same conclusion.

However, proportionally more Muslims than the general population were optimistic that Britain wasn't becoming more racially intolerant. Despite a raging debate about asylum, immigration and substantial concern over terrorism, racial tolerance does not seem to have been dented.

Similarly, although we've seen an increase in recorded incidents of hate crimes, the Muslims surveyed by the BBC had not necessarily felt a personal effect.

This perhaps reflects the debate within Muslim communities. When the senior cleric Dr Zaki Badawi suggested religiously-observant women should remove their headscarves if they fear being singled out for abuse, he faced some considerable flack.

Why? Because a lot of Muslim women think that a confident statement of who they are helps the rest of society understand their faith.

Mixed multiculturalism messages

We also asked people for their views on multiculturalism - and it was here that we found many more mixed messages.

Learning English: 90%/82%
National loyalty: 76%/73%
Loyalty to Crown: 55%/50%
Integrate fully: 69%/73%
Women's equality: 95%/96%
Source: BBC/Mori poll

While six out of 10 people said multiculturalism had made Britain a better place to live, almost the same number said that people who come to the UK should adopt its values and traditions.

In contrast, six out of 10 Muslim respondents said people should be allowed to live by their own values and traditions.

And while eight out of 10 respondents said immigrants should be made to learn English - an even higher proportion of Muslims - 90% - also agreed with the statement.

Confused? Perhaps we all are. Surveys down the years, confirmed by the BBC poll, have shown that people are not sure what we should mean by multiculturalism.

The debate over exactly what the word means goes to the very heart of government - Prime Minister Tony Blair conceded last week that he wasn't sure himself what it meant.

What appears to be clear is that most people agree on one element of a multicultural society: that it needs to have a common language at the heart of it.

This may not mean that they want other languages excluded - what would that mean for Welsh speakers? - but it does seem to mean that people regard that as the minimum tie that binds a diverse society together.

Immigrants the world over learn the hard way that you simply cannot get on if you can't speak the local language which is why classes are such a growth industry.

But more importantly, we're onto our third or fourth generations of Muslim immigrants - people born speaking English, educated in schools paid for by their parents' taxes.

In that sense, minorities either get annoyed, or just smile in exasperation, when the majority appear surprised over this question of language.

Headscarf: Majority opposed French-style ban
Where there is difference is on the more cultural aspects of "values and traditions".

So does the poll's finding that 59% of Muslim respondents want to live by their own values mean they don't want to integrate?

Probably not - as 88% of the same Muslims appear to pass Norman Tebbit's famous cricket test - they say they feel proud when Britain's sporting teams win.

Similarly, there is no statistical difference between Muslims and the rest of society when it comes to questions of loyalty to our institutions, symbols and even the Crown.

But perhaps the findings tell us something that many Muslims feel the rest of the UK doesn't get: Islam, say many Muslim leaders, has a future in Britain, because British society shares its values of common decency, justice, equality and tolerance for minorities.

Ask Muslims who have experience of other European countries - particularly France, Germany and the Netherlands - and many say the UK offers the "best deal".

This sense of connection seems to be borne out elsewhere in the results.

When we asked people if Britain should follow the French policy of banning religious symbols from public life - in this case Islamic headscarves from schools or the workplace - roughly six out of 10 non-Muslims said they would oppose such a ban.

So while our poll found 58% of general respondents thought immigrant groups should adopt British ways, there is substantial flexibility in what this means.

Question marks

But while the poll appears to show a general level of national tolerance and understanding, there are some question marks which may have a bearing on how we understand each other.

Some 27% of general respondents - and 18% of Muslims - said Islam was not compatible with British democracy.

On anti-terrorism measures, there were also considerable divisions over what would be an acceptable response - far fewer Muslims than others questions supported detention without trial.

And one particular response demonstrates how public debate has seen concerns over asylum seekers become closely aligned to concerns over terrorism.

Almost exactly the same numbers of general respondents and Muslim respondents - 37% and 36% respectively - said we should stop all asylum seekers coming into the UK.



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