The news of poll results showing that two thirds of all British Muslims students do not believe that it is OK to kill people in the name of Islam creates an interesting case study of poll coverage. Or something like that. First, most news organizations did not report the results of the poll the way I just presented it. Here is the headline from The Times that is representative of most news coverage:
A third of Muslim students back killings
Of course, I do not know whether an exact two thirds of British Muslims students oppose killing people in the name of Islam. It does raise the question of whether or not it was appropriate to view the glass half-empty instead of half-full. Are there any trends with which this poll can be compared? For example, in 2006, a poll was conducted showing Muslims in Britain to be the most anti-Western in Europe. Has that statistic changed?
Headlines aside, one-third is a significant number regardless of how the poll was carried out. True to form, the news stories failed to include the specific questions asked that resulted in that number. This is a typical shortcoming in news coverage of polls. Appropriately, most news stories included criticism from Muslims groups for how the poll was conducted.
In fact, this Daily Mail article suggests that the question was whether the person could justify "killing in the name of religion if the religion was under attack."
As for the substance of the poll's news coverage, a stark contrast exists between The Times report and that of the Daily Mail. The Times emphasized the issue of tolerance, particularly in regards to matters pertaining to sex.
Here is a sample:
In addition to its poll of 1,400 Muslim and nonMuslim students, the centre visited more than 20 universities to interview students and listen to guest speakers. It found that extremist preachers regularly gave speeches that were inflammatory, homophobic or bordering on antisemitic.
The researchers highlighted Queen Mary college, part of London University, as a campus where radical views were widely held. Last December, a speaker named Abu Mujahid encouraged Muslim students to condemn gays because "Allah hates" homosexuality. In November, Azzam Tamimi, a British-based supporter of Hamas, described Israel as the most "inhumane project in the modern history of humanity".
James Brandon, deputy director at CSC , said: "Our researchers found a ghettoised mentality among Muslim students at Queen Mary. Also, we found the segregation between Muslim men and women at events more visible at Queen Mary."
The Daily Mail on the other hand doesn't mention issues of sex except in a chart accompanying the on-line version of the article and a vague reference to "strongly socially conservative" Muslims. The article focused a lot on the political views drawn from the survey:
While 32 per cent justified killing in the name of religion if the religion was under attack, 60 per cent of students active in Islamic societies did so. Four per cent thought killing to promote religion was permissible.
More than half, 54 per cent, wanted an Islamic political party to stand up for Muslims at Westminster.
There was strong criticism of the British Government over Iraq -- 66 per cent of Muslim students said they had lost respect for it.
As survey coverage goes, the coverage of this issue is not terrible. There is an inherent weakness whenever a news organization reports on a poll so the results should be taken with a grain of salt. From the reporting it seems that the survey may have some significant flaws, but that does not mean the news media should not report the results along with the alleged flaws. A more reliable source for information on actual acts or attempted acts of extremism -- as opposed to mere opinions -- would likely come from the law enforcement desk.
Photo of the East London mosque in Whitechape used under a Wikimedia Commons license.