That the UK’s counter-terrorism policy relies on flawed polls and survey questions for estimating the number of likely terrorists is truly scary, argues Dr Maria Sobolewska.
Last week the media turned once again to trying to quantify how many young British Muslims are wannabe terrorists, travelling to Syria and Iraq and joining the Islamic terrorists there.
This has been a frequent exercise since the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, after which many an estimation of the number of terrorists in the UK were formulated based on public opinion polls, most famously including an estimation from Jonathan Evans, the director general of MI5.
But can we meaningfully estimate numbers of terrorist or future terrorists among British Muslims?
The answer is, most likely, no. But this blog can certainly demonstrate how one of the major sources of any such estimates – Muslim opinion polls and surveys – cannot be used for such a purpose
I am not a public opinion poll sceptic and do not want to deny their value. But having studied in depth the public opinion polls of British Muslims following the 2005 bombings in London, and having asked the same questions about support for terrorism among the non-Muslim British public, I can say with certainty that public opinion polls have no value for estimating the number of prospective and likely extremists and terrorists.
Researching Muslim public opinion following the 7/7 attacks, I naturally came upon a lot of questions on support for extremism and terrorism. Some of the same issues of extremism are coming into question now, so it is worth looking back.
Fourteen public opinion polls of British Muslims were conducted in the 18 months following the attacks on London. Between them they asked more than 400 questions, around 30% of them on the topic of terrorism and extremism. However, the results of these questions were confusing.
On questions about direct support for terrorism (specifically 7/7 attacks and more generally) between 2% of British Muslims expressed support (which is well within polling error and so not meaningfully different from 0), and 9% – a substantial number.
Questioned more broadly on potential and soft support for terrorism, the disparity got even bigger: between 13% support expressed in some polls and a hair-raising 56% in others. Finally, some form of conditional support (the type of questions where Muslims were asked ‘I support terrorism but only if…’) was expressed by between 2% and 22% of Muslims: another huge gap.
So, what is the real, informative picture of Muslim public opinion on terrorism? To find out, I looked at the wording of all these questions and ran some of the same questions among a non-Muslim sample of British people (thanks to the kind support of YouGov) in 2011.
What I found was that what we receive as a true picture of what Muslims think is mostly an artefact of what they get asked and that the non-Muslims answer similar questions in a similar fashion. So 6% of my non-Muslim sample agreed that suicide bombings can be justified for reasons of Islamic terrorism: a copy of a similar question asked of Muslims, and which yielded comparable results.
While the raw numbers were somewhat different, non-Muslims agreed with Muslims that suicide bombings in Israel were more justified than in the UK, and that attacking military targets was a lot more justified than attacking civilian targets.
When the general public were asked for its soft support for terrorism, the proportion supporting terrorism shot up just as it did among Muslims. The effects of changing the question wording from explicit words such as ‘support’ to more vague ones like ‘understand the motives of terrorists’, or even offering such qualified answer categories as ‘yes, but only in extreme circumstances’ resulted in similar bumps in support for terrorism among the general public as it did among Muslims. With such strong effects of manipulations of question wording, one can hardly claim that these questions represent a true picture of the likelihood of British Muslim becoming extremists and terrorists.
It is truly scary to think that our counter-terrorism policy may rely on these polls and similar questions in other surveys (like the Citizenship Survey) in their estimations of likely terrorists. Given the absolute lack of reliability of public opinion on support for extremism and terrorism, one has to ask how MI5, the government, the so-called experts and the various MPs who have spoken on the issue are developing their estimates?
How are they deciding what brings the British Muslims to terrorism if they cannot even know how many share the soft support for terrorist activities? Can any of these numbers be trusted, or is it just a group exercise in increasing the moral panic around yet another Muslim threat?
- The views presented here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).