British Muslims and the Challenge of Multiculturalism

Over the last 20 years, the Muslim community in the United Kingdom has grown to over 2 million people. According to significant studies, the increasing population of British Muslims is one of the main reasons for British success on the political and economic levels, as well as the continued development of British society. However, British Muslims are still viewed by many as an unfriendly or hostile minority causing trouble and creating schisms within British society. This article will examine the favourable and unfavourable perspectives towards British Muslims in the United Kingdom and will shed light on the efforts and willingness of the Muslim community to integrate within British society.

The favourable perspective towards British Muslims

British Muslims are seen in different perspectives within British society. The far-right has often made hostile comments targeting British Muslims as a backward people or as cultural invaders of White territory, who are seeking to replace the western spirit with a Muslim one. Opposingly, the Labour Party is considered the most welcoming to Muslims in the United Kingdom as it consistently takes a favourable stance towards their demands. Because of the Labour Party’s respectful position towards Muslims, several Muslim organizations such as the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) have urged their communities to engage in the 2019 elections and vote for Jeremy Corbyn, stating that “a General Election is our time to get them out of power and replace them with a Corbyn-led government.”

However, it may come as a surprise to many that the most prominent figures in the Conservative Party have acknowledged that British Muslims represent a valuable asset for the United Kingdom. For example, Enoch Powell — who, in his “Rivers of Blood Speech,” vigorously opposed immigration and the proposed Race Relations Bill —induced a campaign to recruit 18,000 doctors from India and Pakistan. In fact, Powell sang their praises, stating that they “provide a useful and substantial reinforcement of the staffing of our hospitals and … are an advertisement to the world of British medicine and British hospitals” (Byrne et al. 2020, 75). 

In 2014, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged in his Ramadan speech that British Muslims play a major role in British society as they “are our biggest donors – they give more to charity than any other faith group” (Cameron 2014). These are fine statements, pointing to a possible reconciliation between the Conservative Party and British Muslims. British Muslims are known for their enormous generosity, especially during the Islamic month of Ramadan, as they helped raise £1.5 million in 2019 for over 300 charities. Additionally, the new Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, apologized for calling Muslim hijabi women “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” While these statements were well-publicized across the country, his compliments of Muslims were not as well-heard: Johnson has since expressed his admiration of British Muslims, stating,  “in business, in our public services, in culture and the media, at the highest levels of government and of course in England’s World Cup-winning cricket team, British Muslims are helping to make this country the success it is today.” To further elaborate on this issue, a report in 2013 found that British Muslims contributed over 31 billion pounds to the economy of the United Kingdom. This economic activity led to  “over 13,000 Muslim businesses in London alone creating 70,000 jobs” (Tiffin 2019).

The hostile perspective towards British Muslims

Widespread in the United Kingdom is the belief that multiculturalism poses a threat to the British people due to cultural separatism and the self-imposed segregation of British Muslims, which enhances divisions between them and the rest of the community. This view gained visibility  after the London Bombings of 7 July 2005 (better known as 7/7) and the Muslim protests against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The atmosphere of fear surrounding these events forced Britons to regard British Muslims as a threat to national security. Consequently, several figures emerged to speak out against the presence of Muslims in Britain, such as Nigel Farage, who viewed Muslims as a disease which falls upon some remote island people. In fact, Farage accused British Muslims of bearing a “tremendous conflict and a split of loyalties,” making them a source of doubt.

From a British nationalist perspective, it is hard to avoid the feeling that a fundamental social change has occurred on the streets of Britain after the “foreign invasion” of Muslims. Many consider these changes to be the death of the White culture and the end of British traditions. To counter the threats posed by British Muslims to Western identity, Mark Adrian Collett (2017), a far-right political activist in the British National Party (BNP), in his book The Fall of Western Man, urges the British people to resist the influx of alien cultures which has destabilized White culture and identity.

Similarly, Douglas Murray, in his work The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (2017), argues that Europe suffers from symptoms and maladies from which it is impossible to recover. For him, these symptoms and maladies are embodied by the presence of Islam and Muslims in the home of the European people, which “gradually became a home for the entire world.” Murray goes so far as to label Islam a terrorist religion, saying “the claim that Islam is a religion of peace is a nicety invented by Western politicians so as either not to offend their Muslim populations or simply lie to themselves that everything might yet turn out fine. In fact, since its beginning Islam has been pretty violent.” With a pen in one hand and a sword in another, Murray reminds his readers of the Battle of Poitiers: “Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Tours in 732 is recognised for having prevented the spread of Islam throughout Europe.” These statements are clear attempts to reawaken the victories of Christianity over Islam from hibernation and could lead to a new Crusade to regain the cultural fortress of Britain which, according to Murray’s logic, has been annexed by British Saracens.

British Muslim efforts to integrate within society

According to the Social Research Institute’s 2018 survey on Muslims in Britain, the majority of British Muslims feel that they belong to British society and believe in British values. In fact, “seven in eight Muslims (88%) feel ‘very’ or ‘fairly strongly’ [that they] belong to Britain.”

The United Kingdom is a base for various Muslim organizations that introduce the message of Islam to British society in attempts to dispel the myths and misconceptions concerning Islam and Muslims. For example, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) is a British Muslim organization dedicated to empowering Muslims and helping them connect with wider society. By building bridges across communities through numerous campaigns and interfaith dialogues, iERA works to promote the values of justice, equality, tolerance, and coexistence. In 2015, iERA organized a campaign at the Queen Mary University entitled ‘Who Do You Love?’ in which then-CEO Hamza Andreas Tzortzis and several others spoke to thousands of Muslims from 53 countries across 6 continents. Their aim was to inspire Muslims to engage positively with the wider non-Muslim community and provide them with methods to address false perceptions of Islam.

In the same year, iERA organized the ‘Don’t Hate, Debate!’ campaign in which prominent Muslim and Christian speakers, academics, journalists, and activists discussed the Muslim faith, the growing suspicion towards the Muslim community, and “whether Islam as a comprehensive belief system is compatible with British values.” The debate was organized to “create a platform for people with different religious and political views to engage in a positive and a civilized dialogue.”

Drawing on wider scholarly literature, Adnan Rashid, a British Muslim historian, stated in a lecture on Islam and Britain that Islam’s influence over British civilization goes back to the Middle Ages and touched various fields such as culture, language, education, ethics, philosophy, science, technology, and literature. In essence, Rashid stated that Muslim culture made its presence felt on the British Isles even before the foundation of England itself, pointing out that the first physical evidence of Islam in Britain was the golden Islamic dinar that was minted by King Offa of Mercia. Offa’s dinar was similar to dinars from the Abbasid state under the rule of Abu Ja’far Al-Mansur. This historical episode could bring the British and Muslim civilizations to a common ground as they do share similar historic characters. Rashid mentioned that, rather than focusing on historical conflicts, we should shed light on the positive impacts of Islam on Britain in order to bring Muslims and Britons together.

To conclude, it is very important to mention that despite the spread of Islamophobia and the advent of the far-right, British Muslims continue to be seen as contributing and active members of society in a number of fields. To further solidify this view, British Muslim organizations and academics continue to help their community  better integrate into British society and build a better environment for future generations.

Works Cited:

[1] 5 Pillars. 2019. Muslim organisations urge Muslims to vote in general election

[2] Byrne, Bridget, Claire Alexander, William Shankley, Omar Khan and James Nazroo. 2020. Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK

[3] Cameron, David. 2014. Ramadan 2014: David Cameron’s message

[4] Lake, Howard. 2019. MuslimGiving raises £1.5m in its first year

[5] Dearde, Lizzie. 2019. Eid 2019: Boris Johnson says Muslims make ‘huge contribution to British life’ as millions celebrate festival

[6] The Economic Times. 2013. British-Muslims contribute GBP 31 bn to economy

[7] Tiffin, Alex. 2019. The Challenges of Being British and Muslim

[8] Sherwood, Harriet. 2018. Jeremy Corbyn attacks Islamophobia during mosque visit

[9] Mason, Rowena. 2018. Nigel Farage accuses Muslims in UK of ‘split loyalties’

[10] Collett, Mark. 2017. The Fall of Western Man

[11] Murray, Douglas. 2017. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam

[12] Darden, Lizzie. 2018. Islamophobia driving belief in myths about Muslims in British society, MPs say

[13] Social Research Institute. 2018. A review of survey research on Muslims in Britain

[14] Rafiq, Ifty. 2018. To Those Who Say Islam And British Values Are Not Compatible

[14] IERA. 2015. Message from iERA Chairman – Abdurraheem Green

[15] Rashid. Adnan. 2020. Islam and Britain: The Forgotten History


Photo by Jakob Cotton

About the Author: Ahmed Gassama is an MA student of Cultural Studies at the Univeristy of Sousse, with two Bachelor’s degrees in French Studies and English Studies. In his personal time he teaches languages, and works on translating articles in Arabic and English.

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