British Muslims and homosexuality: good news or bad?

A survey of attitudes among British Muslims has been generating controversy this week. The survey's aim, in the words of Channel 4 who commissioned it, was "to get a better understanding of British Muslims’ attitudes to living in Britain and British institutions".

Much of the subsequent media coverage has focused on answers given to one particular question. To quote CNN's headline: "52% of British Muslims in poll think homosexuality should be illegal."

But if the 52% figure is correct, is it bad news or good news? Should we be horrified that it's so high, or relieved that it's lower than it might have been? On the principle that a glass half-empty is also half-full, Shaista Gohir of Muslim Women's Network UK commented that 48% of British Muslims appear not to think homosexuality should be illegal. However, it's a bit more complicated than that because the 48% figure includes 30% who either said they didn't know or declined to give an opinion:

Statement: "Homosexuality should 
be legal in Britain"

Agree (total) 18%
Strongly agree 8%
Tend to agree 10%
Neither/nor 22%
Tend to disagree 14%
Strongly disagree 38%
Disagree (total) 52%
Don't know 8%

The detailed breakdown from the polling company, ICM, shows Muslim men are more likely to disagree with the statement (56%) than Muslim women (47%). The relevant table is on page 117. This tallies with other surveys which have found women in general to be more accepting of homosexuality. 

One very significant finding is that opinions vary strongly according to age. Younger British Muslims are far more likely to agree with the statement and Muslims in the 65+ age group are more than twice as likely to disagree with it as those in the 18-24 age group. This could be interpreted as a sign that attitudes to homosexuality are gradually becoming more liberal.

Statement: "Homosexuality should 
be legal in Britain"

Age group Agree Disagree
18-24 28% 37%
25-34 23% 51%
35-44 13% 54%
45-54 13% 56%
55-64 11% 61%
65+ 2% 76%

The methodology of the survey is explained on ICM's website. Interviews were carried out in areas of Britain identified by census information as having a Muslim population of at least 20%. This has led to complaints that it may disproportionately reflect views from the more conservative and less-integrated Muslim communities.

Even so, the findings suggest a less hostile attitude towards homosexuality among British Muslims than among those living in predominantly Muslim countries. An international survey by the Pew Research Center in 2013 asked "Should society accept homosexuality?" and found overwhelming majorities saying it should be rejected in Jordan (97%), Egypt (95%), Tunisia (94%), the Palestinian territories (93%), Indonesia (93%), Pakistan (87%), Malaysia (86%), Lebanon (80%) and Turkey (78%).

Those figures may be more related to religion in general than Islam in particular. Pew noted a strong correlation between a country's religiosity and opinions about homosexuality: "There is far less acceptance of homosexuality in countries where religion is central to people’s lives – measured by whether they consider religion to be very important, whether they believe it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral, and whether they pray at least once a day."

In 2009, a survey by Gallup – the Coexist Index – asked Muslims in France, Germany and Britain whether they believe homosexual acts are morally acceptable or morally wrong (page 31). Thirty-five percent of Muslims interviewed in France said "morally acceptable", 19% in Germany and zero per cent in Britain (on a sample of 500). This led to a headline in the Guardian saying: "Muslims in Britain have zero tolerance of homosexuality, says poll."

An earlier British survey, for the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank in 2007, presented Muslims with a statement that "homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal", and informed them that this is the view "defined in most scholarly interpretations of sharia law". The result was that 61% agreed with the statement and 30% disagreed (page 47). 

One problem with that survey was that it conflated a moral issue with a legal one and forewarned interviewees that if they were  disagreed with the statement they would also be disagreeing with "most scholarly interpretations".

Although the latest ICM poll does not conflate morality with legality it is problematic in other ways. Firstly, the question of whether homosexuality should be legal in Britain has no practical relevance today: there is no significant campaign by Muslims or anyone else to make it illegal.

Secondly, asking whether homosexuality should be legal or not perpetuates confusion about Islamic doctrine and the law in Muslim countries. There are no Muslim laws against homosexuality as a sexual orientation. The laws that exist relate to homosexual (or "unnatural") acts, along with others relating to such things as "immoral advertising" (e.g. posting a profile on a gay dating website). Similarly in Islamic doctrine it is not a sin to be attracted to people of the same sex. It becomes a sin if you act upon those urges and the standard religious advice is to seek God's help in suppressing them.

Finally, the answers to ICM's question give no indication of how Muslims would want gay people to be punished in the event of homosexuality becoming illegal. Would they be beheaded, imprisoned or merely issued with the equivalent of a parking ticket? In the absence of such information many people will no doubt fear the worst.

This issue cropped up in a recent survey in Lebanon (see earlier blog post). The survey used a nationally representative sample which included Lebanese Christians (whose views on homosexuality are often very similar to those of Lebanese Muslims). 

A majority (66%) of those surveyed in Lebanon agreed that "laws against homosexuality are necessary to keep down the number of homosexuals in the population". However, when asked how homosexuality should be punished, 85% disagreed with execution, 66% disagreed with imprisonment and 57% disagreed with fines. In their report, the researchers interpreted this as a desire for some mechanism "that de-legitimises homosexual acts in society" rather than directly punishing them.

The Lebanese survey also highlighted some other apparent contradictions: 57% regarded homosexuality as "a choice" and 65% agreed that "one can stop being gay". At the same time, large majorities regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder (72%), as a hormonal sickness (79%) and a genetic condition (68%). 

The ICM poll, of course, was not primarily about homosexuality but it would be useful to have a survey which looked in more depth at the attitudes of British Muslims in that area, especially the extent to which they approve of social discrimination against gay people. In practical terms, and in terms of the numbers affected, that is probably more relevant than superficial questions about the law and gay marriage.

ICM did touch on anti-gay discrimination in one question, where almost half the respondents thought it was not acceptable "for a homosexual person to be a teacher in a school":

Statement: "It is acceptable for a homosexual 
person to be a teacher in a school"

Agree (total) 28%
Strongly agree 12%
Tend to agree 16%
Neither/nor 18%
Tend to disagree 12%
Strongly disagree 35%
Disagree (total) 47%
Don't know 7%

Alarming as that might be, it does suggest British Muslims are slightly more accepting than the Lebanese. Most respondents in the Lebanese survey agreed with the following statements:

  • I avoid homosexuals wherever possible (69%)

  • I would not want to be part of a group or company with known or suspected homosexual members of staff (55%)

  • I would be nervous if a person who looked homosexual sat next to me in public (57%)

  • If I discovered a friend of mine was gay, I would end the relationship (58%)

As with the question about the law and homosexuality, ICM's question about gay teachers showed striking differences between the generations. British Muslims aged 18-24 were four times more likely to accept a gay teacher than those over 65. But even if that means attitudes are changing there is still a long way to go before a majority overall think gay teachers are acceptable.

Statement: "It is acceptable for a homosexual 
person to be a teacher in a school"

Age group Agree Disagree
18-24 41% 37%
25-34 31% 44%
35-44 27% 49%
45-54 18% 51%
55-64 18% 56%
65+ 10% 70%