From our school days onward, we are told that ignorance is the foundation on which prejudice is built. But prejudice isn’t just a lack of knowledge – it is active and systematic. To illustrate, consider the findings of a new survey on Islamophobia. For this survey, I asked British people what they think different religions teach. Do Christian clergy, for example, teach their congregations that the Bible should be placed in historical context, or that it should be read literally?
Of course, this is a question to which we can’t expect laypeople to give a clear answer. There is a vast range of opinion in the case of Christianity – and indeed every other religion. When we ask people about most religions, this is reflected in their answers. In the case of most non-Christian religions, for example, most people say that they are ‘not sure’ how Judaism or Sikhism are taught.
The case of Islam, however, is different. This religion the British public feels far more confident about: the number of people who are ‘not sure’ falls sharply, to 40.7 percent. But this happens despite the fact that the judgements British people make about Islam are much more likely to be wrong. 21.1% of British people wrongly believe Islam teaches its followers that the Qur’an must be read ‘totally literally’, almost three times the figure for any other religion covered in the survey.
There is another aspect to this, too. In the UK, prejudice tends to be associated with the while working classes. (Think about how much of our post-Brexit political conversation focuses on the mythical figure of the white working class, socially conservative ‘Red Wall’ voter supposedly disillusioned with pro-migration liberal elites.) This is not baseless. In my survey, banning migration to the UK from specific ethnic minorities was significantly more popular among people in manual occupations. We see a similar pattern with most questions about ethnic and religious minority groups.
This is not the case, however, when we investigate prejudices toward Islam as a religion. When we ask questions about Muslims as a group of people – about Muslim ‘migration bans’, for example – working class people are either more hostile toward minorities or there is no significant difference between them and middle class people. When we turn to questions about Islam as a tradition, though, it is the middle classes who emerge as more prejudiced. Middle class people are 4.8% more likely to view Islam as ‘totally’ literalistic than people from working class backgrounds.
I have my own theories as to why this is, but education seems to have something to do with it. The increased prejudice middle class people have toward Islam appears to be mostly down to the fact that they are more confident in their judgements, while working class people are happy to acknowledge their ignorance. Middle class people are more educated, which means that – in the case of Islam – they are more miseducated too.
This briefing is based on a new report, ‘The Dinner Table Prejudice: Islamophobia in Contemporary Britain’, by Stephen H. Jones and Amy Unsworth.