The Home Office plans to commission a series of telephone polls to survey British Muslims’ attitudes towards extremist ideas and ideologies, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Ministers hope that the polling will not only measure respondents' existing views but also allow them to track the effectiveness of counter-extremism initiatives such as the controversial Prevent programme.
But Muslim leaders voiced concerns that the polling reinforced the notion that the Muslim community was suspect, and said sampling difficulties meant the results could be "plain wrong".
The Home Office has confirmed the plans, although a spokesperson said it would not comment on costs. BuzzFeed News understands the government will spend "about £1 million" on the polls.
The polling is part of a broader counter-extremism strategy, set out in a document published at the end of last year, that covers all forms of extremism, including that of the far right. In the document the government said its approach “will always be informed by an understanding of the way extremists work, their ideologies and the harm they cause".
As part of its strategy, the government said it would further strengthen the existing evidence base by commissioning and part-funding research, and working with academics and universities. Other stakeholders include the recently established Extremism Analysis Unit, which has been tasked to support government departments and the wider public sector to understand extremism issues, and the MI5-led Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC).
Any involvement in the polling of the intelligence agencies through JTAC is likely to raise privacy concerns about whether the raw survey data will be shared with the stakeholders.
The Home Office spokesperson said the government was now at an early stage of planning and would not get drawn into discussing specific details. They declined to say how the data would be handled, and would not provide details of the polls' methodology or say whether the findings would be made public.
A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain told BuzzFeed News: “The results of previous surveys show that polling British Muslims is often fraught with controversy, and this proposed polling is likely to be equally controversial.
"Polling ordinary Muslims to understand attitudes towards extremist ideas as part of the counter-extremism strategy reinforces the concern that Muslims are a suspect community in the UK, in particular if other forms of extremism are not dealt with in a similar way.
"Such an approach is also likely to be ineffective in understanding the diversity of views within British Muslim communities given the challenges of polling minorities, as highlighted by a number of academics and the most recent ICM poll. Without a control group and appropriate sampling, the conclusions drawn run the risk of being plain wrong.
"We hope the government will re-evaluate whether such an approach is likely to be conducive to the public good and in tackling the scourge of terrorism."
Similar concerns have been raised in the past around the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, known as Prevent. A senior figure in the Muslim Council of Britain said last year that the strategy had failed and was having a negative impact. A former police chief superintendent said most Muslims were suspicious of the scheme and saw it as a tool for spying on them.
Previous attempts to survey British Muslims have caused controversy.
Last year the press watchdog, IPSO, ruled that an article in The Sun claiming nearly 1 in 5 UK Muslims had "sympathy for Jihadis" was misleading and ordered the newspaper to apologise.
IPSO had received a record number of complaints over the newspaper’s presentation of the poll upon which the story was based – even the company behind the poll criticised the paper’s handling of its findings. Other polling companies questioned the methodology used and whether the poll was representative of Britain’s Muslim population.
A survey by ICM Unlimited for the Channel 4 programme What Muslims Really Think earlier this year did not receive the same levels of backlash, although critics questioned the value of polling a religious minority and pointed out again the difficulty of putting together representative samples.
The poll found that 86% of British Muslims felt a strong sense of belonging in Britain (higher than the national average of 83%), 88% said Britain was a good place for Muslims to live, and 78% said they were keen to integrate into British life.
More than 80% said they condemn those who take part in suicide attacks, while 73% said they opposed how the ISIS is trying to create a caliphate, compared to 3% who said they supported it.
However, the poll also revealed a divergence between British Muslims and other British citizens on key issues. When asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed that homosexuality should be legal in Britain, 18% said they agreed, while 52% disagreed (compared to 5% who disagree among the population as a whole). Nearly 1 in 2 said they did not agree that it was acceptable for a gay person to become a teacher. Just under 1 in 4 said they want sharia law.
According to the 2011 census, the Muslim population accounts for 4.8% of the adult population in Britain.
Siraj Datoo contributed to this article.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.