Eid mubarak!

“Understanding Islam” is a very welcome new initiative from the Coexist Foundation.

So much discussion of religion is a mere battery of assertion, unhindered by any proper grounding in theology. This ignorance is typical not only of committed atheists, but of an enormous number of people of faith, too, whose practices and beliefs often owe more to habit than to their sacred texts or the dissertations of their scholars.

So, as Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, I'm pleased to write about an initiative by the Coexist Foundation that may help to remedy this unfortunate situation, which is at least one of the causes for the dogmatism and hatred that flourish around matters of belief and unbelief.

The foundation, set up in 2006 and run by James Kidner, a former diplomat and deputy private secretary to Prince Charles, is in the process of building three interactive online courses to explain Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They should be a magnificent resource for anyone wishing to learn about these faiths but bewildered by where to start -- perhaps slightly daunted by the prospect of beginning by reading the whole of the Torah, Bible and Quran.

The first course, "Understanding Islam", is already up and running (and available, for a fee, at understandingfaiths.net). It is divided into 15 units, each of which concentrates on a particular area. So "A Long Line of Prophets", for instance, explains that the Quran lists 25, 21 of whom are also in the Bible, and that every people in the world was sent at least one (even if today we have no idea who they were or what their message was). Muhammad's was the final revelation, not the only one; but the one that perfects and corrects those given to Jesus (the "Injil") and to Moses and the Jews (the "Taurat").

Each unit is narrated by Chris Hewer, currently fellow in Christian-Muslim relations at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in the City of London, who wrote the course with four Muslim advisers from across the major traditions in Islam.

The units are subdivided into pages of roughly one or two minutes' length, during which the listener can pause to note the very useful Quranic references scrolling down the right-hand side of the screen or the information provided in the elegant, minimal graphics. From time to time, the narrative is broken up by a video commentary from one of the four Muslim scholars. At the end, or halfway through the longer units, the reader is invited to take a test to ensure it is all sinking in.

There is a wealth of fact and explanation here, from the history of and reasons for the split between Sunnis and Shias (how many western policymakers appreciated the significance to the latter of the Iraqi city of Karbala before the invasion, one wonders), to the origins of "Gibraltar" -- the name of that bastion of Blighty's being a corruption of "Jabal al-Tariq" ("the mountain of Tariq"), after the Muslim general who led the conquest of Spain in 711.

But it also manages to shed light on aspects of Islam that may seem matters of alien ritual to outsiders, such as the Hajj or the Sufi practices that aim for an altered state of consciousness. Much that strikes some as harsh and unyielding is presented in context and with justification, taking care to stress that sharia -- "the path laid out for all" -- is more about the rewards of a forgiving God and the benefits of developing taqwa ("God consciousness") than about the amputations to which Islam's enemies constantly reduce it.

It is true that this course does not answer some of the hard questions, and it paints a pretty conservative picture of the rules governing family life and dress codes. Are women really not supposed to go out alone with any man who is not a "mahram", a family member too closely related for marriage? Can men be expected to prize piety above all else when choosing a wife -- GSOP instead of GSOH, never mind (let's be realistic) physical attraction?

Unaddressed, too, is the thorny, but critical, question of how Islamic law can be accommodated with pluralism in states that are constitutionally defined as secular -- whether Muslims are a majority there or a minority.

But such a course (it lasts seven hours on a straight-through viewing, though the approach I would recommend, with note and test-taking, would require considerably more time) cannot deal with every query and criticism. Its aim is to promote understanding of Islam, not least by pointing out the connections between the Abrahamic faiths. The cousin of the Prophet's wife Khadija, for instance, was a Christian, as were those who came from Najran to pray at his mosque in Medina; and the constitution of that city, declared in 622, gave equal status to Muslims and Jews.

There will be those who criticise the course for its positive view of Islam, but it will be invaluable for police officers, doctors, teachers -- anyone working in the community, in fact -- as well as for those serious students of religion and international affairs who want a detailed and thought-provoking introduction to this faith tradition. Its range and detail are remarkable, as are its technical features and feel.

Given that the course may also be used by troops going into combat in the Middle East, I, for one, am very glad that it seeks to emphasise what we have in common rather than what divides us. That way, one is rather more likely to jaw-jaw than to war-war.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.