The Hijacking of British Islam – by shoddy research

Update Oct 09: disgusting – a Catholic friend in dire health came across Salafist or Wahabist literature advocating the death of homosexuals and the perpetration of jihad. In the Chaplaincy of Addenbrookes hospital. I just want to reiterate that the research I address below is necessary and Denis McEoin is to be commended for undertaking it. He has taken some hard knocks since.

In late October the Policy Exchange (a think tank) put out a report authored by Denis McEoin and titled The Hijacking of British Islam. How Extremist Literature is Subverting Mosques in the UK.

The report introduces mosques which make hate literature available. Its format is an introduction to the mosque a list of attributes including MP (in case readers wish to write?) and affiliations. Then there’s a ‘Points of Interest’ section which consists of vital statistics mixed with reports of extremist tendencies. Next is the ‘Books Found Here Included:” section consisting of titles and illustrative quotes. Then the next mosque is introduced, and so on.

The aims of the research:

“The aim of this project is to provide as complete a picture as possible of the dispersion of separatist and hate literature in Islamic institutions across the UK.”

“…to determine the extent to which literature inculcating Muslim separatism and hatred of nonbelievers was accessible in those institutions both in terms of being openly available and also being obtainable ‘under the counter’.”

The worth of these aims is debatable – more below. Gabriele Marranci at Tabsir also challenges the methodological ethics – he argues that the subjects of the Policy Exchange’s research were findamentally flawed by an unprincipled research design. The work is not fully attributable, access does not seem to have been gained transparently and ‘shocking’ translations of texts were liberally included in the absence of the originals. Marranci feels that the findings may have been invalidated by the design. One of his points is that the majority of extremist literature is distributed between private homes and Islamic bookshops, but that these were neglected in the research. Another is that the presence of extremist literature in an institution where a range of books is available does not in itself imply extremism on the part of either readers or institutions.

These reservations prompt Marranci to consider the credentials of the researcher and, since they seem thin, he concludes:

“… to convince not just me, but the public, he has to provide quite substantial evidence that in not one instance had the material been taken from the ‘providers’ without their being fully informed of the reasons behind the research, the aims, the sponsors and the way in which the material would be selected and presented.”

Yes, in academia it is elementary research governance to make participants aware of exactly what will happen and for how long, how the data collected about them will be used, that they are free to withdraw at any time and who to contact if they have questions. Is there any reason to believe the Policy Exchange should conduct its research differently? Because I aim to anonymise my participants I ‘ve always given them the opportunity to check the draft report for breaches and, since I’m doing that, also invite participant validation (incidentally, very rarely have I had changes requested and I’ve never made a change I felt was wrong) and these things are another big aspect of gaining participants’ and gatekeepers’ trust. If indeed the researchers approached mosques circumspectly, this strongly suggests an invalidating bias.

If Marranci is right this will further sour British Muslims, and understandably. It will be interpreted as ideologically-motivated undercover investigative work along the lines of the infiltration exercises ongoing at the Birmingham Green Lane and former Finsbury Park mosques. Whether or not this type of thing is ever appropriate work for a think-tank I doubt, but to put the results into the public domain in the manner of an exposé is surely calculated to make readers view British Muslims with suspicion as a type of people susceptable to subversion, a kind of fifth column. Iqbal Sacranie notes that the Policy Exchange is not a respected source of information for British Muslims because it is seen as having an agenda to tarnish the reputation of British Muslims. But the British media made quite a bit of it. The Sun:”One in four British mosques is in the grip of extremists”. The Telegraph: “Hate literature easily found in British mosques”. Bloggers too.

So the Protocols and other extremist works can be found in British mosques. What does that tell us? I’m not a complete noodle – this stuff is published and made cheaply or freely available with the explicit aim of influencing Muslims. In this respect it is a threat to women, gays and non-Muslims (with particular attention given to Jews). Although Marranci is right to point out that you cannot draw conclusions from the discovery of extremist books in an institution which contains many books, the presence of this literature is significant – particularly since it is not present in all mosques. It signifies that the texts are important – either as examples of a notable genre which is represented in mosques in much the same way as the work of Hitler is available from our campus libraries or – and this is the assessment of the report’s authors – as a radicalising influence. Either way, its presence in mosque libraries indicates that the literature is influential, and it’s right to be concerned about this in general.

McEoin writes “I believe these materials speak for themselves” and goes on to liberally quote extremist sections of the materials. This is alright – the researchers set out to count and categorise extremist texts available in mosques. Everybody seems to acknowledge that these are available in many Muslim institutions, and it is helpful for everybody to know more about this.

But what is not alright is the report’s attempt – on the back of extremely narrow evidence – to extrapolate, raise an alarm, and call recommend actions to reform Muslim society. Readers are supposed to get the message that the mosques are actively involved in propagating extremist or separatist views. Neil Robinson, chair in Islamic studies at Seoul University, writes in the preface that:

“.. every cloud has a silver lining: the good news is that the researchers who collected the material were all Muslims – members of the silent majority who are sufficiently worried about the situation to render this service. It is my hope that this report will galvanise many British Muslims to repudiate the kind of material featured here.”

But his study does not tell us that British Muslims are swallowing this material. Nobody tried to find out about readers’ experiences with and reactions to the texts. The fact that the researchers were Muslim doesn’t signify – it was a poorly-designed study which cannot support the conclusions that those who are worried about Muslim extremism have been happy to draw from it.

Considering we don’t burn or ban books round here, what is to be done (and I mean about the books and not, as McEoin does in his Policy Recommendations, about Muslim society)? One commenter on an MPAC forum reports finding a copy of Melanie Philips’ Londonistan (raising the alarm about Islamic fundamentalism) in a mosque in Bolton. This is interesting because it introduces the mitigating issue of balance, proportion and the representation of a range of views. But this is another matter the report doesn’t tell us about – we don’t know what proportion the hate literature is of the overall provision – it might have been miniscule but we aren’t told. We also aren’t told how the literature is presented (although we know that some is ‘back room’ and this could be for a number of reasons, including that the owners believe it is too extremist to put on the public shelves and risk indoctrinating naive readers.) These are big omissions. As a piece of circumstantial evidence in situations where other factors have incriminated a given mosque, this report might have something to contribute, but nothing grander.

I’d be interested to find out whether there are any funded initiatives to send books which promote democracy and rights into mosques. This strikes me as one reponse to the presence of hate literature – a more confrontational approach might be justified in some cases but this report doesn’t support one.

Update Oct 09: obviously, where the hate literature is found, it needs to be challenged.

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