Figures from the 2011 census show that the Muslim population in the UK has substantially risen between 2001 and 2011 from 1.5 million to almost 3 million. This now takes the proportion of Muslims from 2% of the population to 5%. In some towns, Muslims make up almost 50% of the population, and in large cities like London and Manchester they make up around 14% of the population. But why has the number of Muslims risen so much and what are the implications?
There are several reasons why the number of Muslims has doubled. Some of these are more obvious than others. For example, it is widely known that Muslims have a higher birth rate than people of other faiths meaning younger generations are made up of higher proportions of Muslims. It is also apparent that many Muslim societies are dominated by conflict which has led to a significant number of Muslims seeking more secure prospects in the UK from Muslim nations like Somalia and Afghanistan.
The presence of an existing Muslim population has also played a role in encouraging Muslims to come to the UK. Prospective migrants know they will find relatives, friends or a prospective community well established here. One could go even further back and consider the colonial relationship that Britain had with many Muslim countries that triggered the mass chain migration of Muslims and others more than 50 years ago that has led to the steady flow of migrants coming to the UK.
One of the little understood reasons for the growth in the number of Muslims in the UK relates to the growing number of Britons who are choosing to convert to Islam. There are estimations that hundreds of Britons convert to Islam every month which certainly contributes to the steadily increasing number of Muslims. These conversions are triggered by a combination of increasing missionary activity by Muslims but also by a seemingly widened disaffection with Christianity. It comes as no surprise then that while the number of Muslims are rising, the number of Christians are declining. Quite simply, some Christians are converting to Islam.
The final significant reason for the growth in the number of Muslims relates to identity politics. During the last decade, following 9/11 and during the 'War on Terror', Muslims have increasingly felt under pressure to defend themselves and be proactive in defining themselves. There has been a widespread sentiment that extremists have been allowed to hijack Islam.
Muslims often express a feeling that the media and politicians have been complicit in allowing Muslim identity to be connected to extremism. As a result, in 2011 compared to 2001, there are many more Muslims who take pride in labelling themselves as Muslims because they want to resist the Islamophobic discourses which have surrounded Muslim identities in recent years. Perhaps unexpectedly, when an identity is attacked, those who are categorised as belonging to that group are often likely to assert themselves as part of that group, rather than shy away from it.
Yet, the prevalence of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 world may mean some people who filled in the 2011 census were still reluctant to identify as Muslims. There is therefore a possibility that the number of Muslims is notably higher than the 5%, especially when it is recognised that 7% of the population abstained from stating their religious belief. How many of these 7% are Muslim is impossible to know, but there is a chance that many of them are, who avoided declaring themselves as Muslims due to fear of discrimination.
So what does the growth in the number of Muslims mean? Inevitably, the Far Right will claim we are witnessing the 'Islamification of Britain'. More sober minded people will rightfully recognise that this is not occurring whatsoever. Muslims are still a small minority in British society, but a noticeable one. The large number of Muslim residents, most of whom are citizens who hold a British passport, are entitled to vote and pay their taxes, should be respected as a significant part of the nation who may have unique needs, but who also have a unique contribution to make to the nation.
All the indicating factors suggest that the growth of the Muslim population is certainly not declining, is unlikely to be stabilising and if anything, is going to continue to grow in the future. By the next census Muslims may even double again and make up 10% of the population. These statistics encourage us to think more carefully about the provisions made for British Muslims and the ways in which they are an integral part of the nation.
Dr. Leon Moosavi is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool. Specialise in the sociology of race and religion. Expert on Muslims in Britain, Islamophobia and conversion to Islam.
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