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‘Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics’

‘Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics’

This indelible quote was popularised by the novelist Mark Twain and is a concise and accurate summary of the deliberate attempt to mislead the public through the use of statistics.

Remember this famous Colgate advert?


The Advertising Standards Authority banned the slogan in 2007 after it was discovered that the dentists and hygienists who were questioned were offered the option of recommending a number of brands, not just one. Hence some of the competitors of Colgate were equally popular, whereas the advert gives the misleading impression that Colgate was recommended to the exclusion of other brands.

Now consider this more sinister Daily Mail headline:


It feeds off the popularly held view that non-European, non-white migrants are ‘benefit-scroungers’ that contribute little, financially or culturally, to the UK. The headline is based on a UCL study covering the immigrant population between 1995 and 2011 which came with a health-warning  stating that the figures were ‘difficult to interpret’ and ‘not informative’. [1] The study did not include the previous financial contribution an elderly migrant may have made to the UK prior to 1995 when he or she may have been of working age, and did not take into account migrants who may have come into the UK, contributed, and then left. In actual fact, the study did compare the contribution made by native Britons and found native Britons cost the state £591m in the same period, which proportionally was the same as non-EU migrants, a fact completely omitted by the Daily Mail.

If the above two examples teach us anything, it is to be sceptical of statistics which feed into a commercial interest, and be even more sceptical of statistics which reinforce dangerous stereotypes of minority communities without a control group from the general population to contextualise the statistics.

Nowhere are these principles abused more than the study of the views and opinions of British Muslims. Consider this shocking sun headline from Monday 23 November 2015 in the wake of the Paris attacks:


The survey this headline is based on did not mention ‘jihadis’ at all. The actual question posed to British Muslims was whether they had, ‘sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria’, with the response options being, ‘a lot’, ‘some’, or ‘no’ sympathy. This purposefully ambiguous question does not define who these ‘fighters in Syria’ are, knowing full well that the sympathy response rate would be virtually zero if ISIS was mentioned. ‘Fighters in Syria’ could in fact be a reference to the numerous Syrian based rebel groups that are fighting against the oppressive Assad regime as well as against ISIS. Note how the Sunday Express, in the wake of a Channel 4 documentary, described some of the Britons travelling to Syria to fight ISIS as ‘heroes’.[2]

The Sun also chose to use the word ‘sympathy’ as opposed to ‘support’. ‘Sympathy’ can merely mean that respondents pitied the plight of these ‘young Muslims’ who through social alienation, lack of knowledge of their faith or simply been dazzled by online propaganda had chosen a completely self-destructive course of action. Note the use of the adjective ‘young’ which again conjures up images of young people being groomed and exploited, hence increasing the sympathy response rate.

Consider also that the options were not binary with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. The inclusion of ‘some sympathy’ is a moderate option which always is likely to have a high response rate in any poll when considering a complex or ambiguous question.

Now remember the Daily Mail example of misleading statistics and how, without a control group, the figures can appear skewed? The same question regarding sympathy for young Muslims leaving the UK to fight in Syria was asked by Sky News in March to the general UK population. The findings were broadly equivalent when considering sample size, and found that 14 per cent of the general population had some ‘sympathy’. The current UK population is approximately 65 million which equates, if the results of this poll are to be extrapolated in the same manner as it often is for Muslims, to a staggering 9.1 million ‘jihadi’ sympathisers walking the streets of the UK!

People might be forgiven for thinking that the use of misleading statistics to demonise the Muslim community and increase the circulation of newspapers by feeding into an Islamophobic narrative is specific to the right wing press. Go back to July 2006 on the one year anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London, both the BBC and ITN News Channels were dominated by the results of a dramatic Times opinion poll which revealed, ‘13% of British Muslims think that the four men who carried out the London Tube and bus bombings of July 7, 2005, should be regarded as martyrs’. The apocalyptic cry was that when the results were extrapolated to the entire UK Muslim population, there were a potential 120,000 Muslim suicide bombers walking the streets of Britain. ITN realising that the public may not be sufficiently shocked by abstract figures alone used a computer simulation of 5 football stadiums full of suicide bombers for dramatic effect!

The ticking time bomb narrative of British Muslims has no credibility whatsoever. Maria Sobolewska from the University of Manchester stated ‘public opinion polls have no value for estimating the number of prospective and likely extremists and terrorists’.[3] Besides, increasing the profit margins of unscrupulous Islamophobic media moguls like the owner of the Sun, Rupert Murdoch, these polls have the very real consequence of increasing attacks on Muslims and women in particular.[4] They also heighten the sense of mistrust between communities and provide a pretext for legislation to further curb civil liberties.

The Sun has never been very big on accuracy of content or balanced reporting. If only as a society we valued the protection of vulnerable minority communities as much as making an informed decision about which toothpaste to buy.

But that is not to say we should lose hope. One stark contrast between examples of such lies and manipulation years ago and today is that the general public are now able to expose the lies and exert political and even economic pressure for accountability. We collectively wield the power to influence that people in the past could only have dreamed of. As soon as the Sun’s headline came out last week, thousands of people took to social media to not only ridicule, but to complain to The Independent Press Standard Organisation (IPSO) and lobby companies that advertised in the paper! The following is an excerpt from a grass-roots organised action alert:

If you are horrified by the Sun’s lies, then you have a responsibility to act.

The Sun’s bottom line is to make money. If we struck a blow to this they will sit up and take notice and be forced to change their editorial policy of Muslim-baiting. We have to force the companies that chose to advertise in The Sun to take responsibility, by refusing to advertise in it.

As consumers we have to tell these companies we will launch a boycott unless they publicly make a statement condemning the Sun’s fabricated and hate filled message.

Specsavers, Sainsbury’s, Talk Talk and Morrison’s are four of the most prominent advertisers. Please be firm but polite.

They cannot justify advertising in a paper that encourages hatred of Muslims based on fabrications.

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Although it will not change the environment overnight, activism within the reach of every single one of us carries the potential to make it unaffordable for the Islamophobia industry to operate, despite its multi-million dollar budget. And even if it did not, it would be a shame to see any Muslim sit idly by and not even try to change an evil or injustice that they see, because we claim to have our sights on the unseen, not easily disheartened by the material measurements. Indeed the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said,

‘Whoever among you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand. If he is unable, then with his tongue. Then if he is unable, then with his heart. And that is the weakest of īmān.’[5]

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) did not give a fourth option; there is no case where a believer can sit idly by, feeling insignificant and incapable amidst the masses against them, and thus not sincerely strive to change an evil or an injustice. As Margaret Mead famously stated,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”







[5] Sahīh Muslim

About Ustadh Abu Haneefah Sohail

Abu Haneefah is an educationalist and student of knowledge. He has worked extensively in community projects in the UK. He holds regular study circles on reflections on the Qur'ān and his field of expertise is the tarbiyya of young people.

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