Ever since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims in the UK and other Western countries have been under the microscope. Their positions have been analyzed for any signs of disloyalty or extremism. For more than two decades, most British Muslims have focused on saying what they are not, while having others tell them who they are. Is this changing?
The signs are that the British Muslim community is growing in confidence. Head back to 2005 and the London bombings, the atmosphere was one of heads in the sand. Much of the British Muslim community did not digest the implications of four of their number committing these atrocities. All too often, they denied there was an extremism issue in their ranks. Even if such extremists were small in number, they were dangerous.
Since then, British Muslim organizations have made substantial strides forward and are far more on the front foot, with the reactions to the Manchester bombing of 2017 committed by a Libyan a key example. British Muslim organizations immediately reacted, with many helping those affected.
British Muslims are now the second-largest religious grouping in the UK. The 2021 census shows that the Muslim population is now about 4 million in England and Wales, some 6.5 percent of the entire population and an increase of 1.2 million since the 2011 census. This is a huge change to the makeup of Britain. Back in 1961, the British Muslim population hovered only around 50,000. It is also a very young population today. We do not know the breakdown as yet from the 2021 census, but the 2011 census indicated that about half the Muslim population was under the age of 25.
According to the first report of its kind published last week on British Muslim civil society, British Muslim organizations have mushroomed across the country. These groups help Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They are far more knitted into the broader community. These civil society groups cover everything from mosques to Islamic centers, student groups, media bodies and education outfits. There are now more than 2,000 mosques and Islamic centers in the country.
All of this civil society effort was on display throughout the pandemic and the ensuing cost-of-living crisis. Whereas once British Muslim humanitarian organizations tended to focus their efforts overseas, their contribution to addressing deprivation domestically has escalated.
British Muslims have become far more confident political actors. At the last general election in 2019, a record 18 British Muslim MPs were elected. It is almost certain that, at the next election, this number will increase even more, inching closer to the 6.5 percent of MPs that would indicate fair representation for their share of the population. An impressive 10 of these 18 MPs are women. Sadiq Khan is the first British Muslim mayor of London, having been elected for a second term in 2021, and is perhaps the leading Muslim politician in Europe. Role models and examples of success are key ingredients to greater confidence in these often marginalized communities.
There are also signs that British Muslim women are becoming more prominent. Zara Mohammed now leads arguably the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first person under 30 to be elected to this role. This matters as, more often than not, British Muslim women suffer from a triple penalty: Their race, their gender and their faith.
An overlapping issue is the role of British Arab communities, which are predominantly Muslim. Their number is far smaller than the overall Muslim population, the majority of which emanates from South Asia. Typically, British Arabs lack the confidence to engage in public life. This will no doubt happen, not least with younger generations getting involved, but they lag behind non-Arab British Muslims at present in terms of participation. Hopefully they will take heart from the increasing success of the broader Muslim community.
Challenges remain. British Muslim communities were hit disproportionately hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. They still suffer from relatively high levels of deprivation. According to the recent census, 30 percent of British Muslims live in the poorest 10 percent of local authority districts. This is why it matters that British Muslim civil society has focused more and more on its own communities, not just internationally, as important as the latter undeniably is.
Islamophobia remains a massive challenge, not least on the right of British politics. The image of Muslims remains dreadful, with few positives. For example, it is safe to say that most of the British non-Muslim population have little clue as to the extent of British Muslim charitable giving and communal participation. British Muslims are all too often portrayed as one large block, ignoring the huge diversity among them. The diet of news about Muslims is largely a tidal wave of the negative, with Muslims seen as a threat and a danger. It still appears hard, sometimes impossible, to separate the guilt of a few extremists from a broader population of 4 million. The gross calumny that Islam is a warlike religion is widely held. Other Western states suffer from a similar malaise.
The more influential and confident British Muslim groups get, the more some others will feel threatened. This is what is happening. Nearly a third of those who voted for Brexit believe in the conspiracy theory of a massive plot to encourage Muslim immigration to take over the UK. But investing in effective organizational architecture will help to address hatred and bigotry.
Last week’s report highlights areas for improvement, not least the media. More progress needs to be made regarding the inclusion of women and youth, but it is happening. Further research remains vital, not least for the more marginalized, such as British Arabs, as there remains huge gaps in our knowledge.
All of this highlights how much of the Muslim community in the UK is now genuinely British. It is far from being Muslims who by chance are in Britain. It is also going to strengthen the UK. British politics and broader civil society increasingly reflect the country’s diverse makeup, incorporating their talents and experiences.