Each post in the series will look ahead fifteen years. Below is Part 1.
The following was originally published in the British current affairs magazine Different Perspective in February 2022.
Despite the justifiable concerns of many in the UK after the July 2005 Tube bombings, the long-term trajectory of the UK Muslim population proved to be one of a difficult but steady march towards ever greater assimilation, social advancement, and professional achievement. It is true that a not-insignificant fraction of Muslims is proving itself to be remarkably resistant to internalizing key aspects of British culture. Nonetheless, from where we now stand in late 2022, it is clear that the worst is behind us. There seem to be no particular grounds to believe that UK Muslims as a whole are likely to present us with any particularly thorny long-term integration problems in the future. Indeed, the continued over-representation of the Afro-Caribbean community in both our lowest socio-economic bracket and our prisons would seem to be a far more pressing concern.
Needless to say, it had not always been so clear that Islam would be able to fit into UK society at all. As late as 2008, the Muslim population of the country appeared to be gradually yet inexorably diverging from mainstream society, with the UK itself ‘sleepwalking into segregation,’ as one commentator put it at the time. It may be helpful to review events from that year to the present to clarify for ourselves just how so much progress was made in such a short period, progress conspicuous mainly by its absence in most other European countries.
It was in late 2008 that the Labour government of Gordon Brown implemented major reforms of the immigration system. Though immigration from other EU countries was necessarily unrestricted, all other would-be immigrants had to apply via a new points-based system similar to those already in use in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. This had a drastic impact on the chain migration by means of which tens of thousands of Muslims had entered the UK every year through marriage, family reunification and the like. Stringent new controls on bringing spouses into the country, applied across the board, served to significantly cut the number of Muslims entering the UK to live.
At the same time as these reforms were dramatically reducing Muslim immigration to the UK, the surrounding and supporting debate saw a rise to prominence of various lines of argument which had long been considered out of bounds. Growing population density, strains on health and transport infrastructure, concerns about the environment; all these factors and more were brought into the debate by those who felt increasingly confident in opposing mass immigration per se. In an arguably more important departure, semi-taboo issues such as the crime rate among certain immigrant communities were also raised with ever-greater confidence and frequency. Though politicians of all parties were quick to denounce such concerns as xenophobic and racist, it was clear that the general tone of the debate was representative of a well of support both broad and deep for a much tougher stance on immigration.
Despite its good work on immigration reform, which was supported by opposition political parties, the Labour government went on to lose the 2010 general election to the Conservative Party. Re-elected by a landslide after 13 years out of power as voters made clear the degree of their disillusionment with Labour, the Conservatives made clear in their manifesto their desire to ensure that British cultural norms prevailed and the rule of British law obtained. To this end, they quickly implemented an ambitious and controversial suite of reforms designed to tackle issues of social cohesion in general, and Muslim integration problems more specifically.
With the implementation of the new policies, the police and Crown Prosecution Service were given instructions to pursue the perpetrators of ‘culturally sensitive’ crimes far more assiduously than before, and gain high profile convictions as and when possible. The year 2011 witnessed the first UK convictions for female genital mutilation, as well as the first convictions under the new law prohibiting forced marriage. The latter were particularly significant. Though Muslim lobby groups had previously been able to block the criminalization of forced marriages, claiming that existing legislation against kidnapping and rape was sufficient, the Conservatives had succeeded in putting a new law on the books, whilst making it clear to the police that they expected it to be enforced. The police took the change of direction seriously, and the popularity of the new law amongst young Muslim women was the strongest argument in favour of it.
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‘Honour’ violence was the target of a particularly concerted crackdown. The police’s newly robust stance on the unacceptability of violence towards women in immigrant communities was the first prong of the new initiatives here. The second was the dedication of significant sums to the expansion of government-funded women’s shelters in areas with large Muslim populations. Supplementing this latter development were clever PR efforts to make the availability of these resources well known to Muslim women in general. Large numbers of vulnerable women quickly fled violence and abuse to seek refuge in these shelters, to the horror and outrage of Muslim lobby groups and their fellow travellers. Though the government stoutly denied that the expansion of these facilities was intended to undermine ‘institutions’ valued by the Muslim community, few were fooled.
Parallel to these developments was a gradual blossoming of Islamic reform and Muslim apostate organizations. The UK Council of Ex-Muslims was established in 2011, and the Shari’a Reformation Association in 2012. The latter was dedicated to the creation and legitimization of a radically new school of Islamic jurisprudence, in an attempt to bring Islam into the 21st century. Marking a major departure in the modern development of Islam, it evoked bellows of concern and dismay from large segments of the Muslim community, and not a few accusations of Zionist scheming.
Many quickly observed that these new organizations exhibited far more staying power and influence than their counterparts had previously done in other European countries. Some were government-funded in part, others were financed by private individuals and philanthropists, but all helped create an environment in which it was clear that there were more options available to British Muslims than simply following the type of Islam laid down for them by people from the ‘old country.’
It was hardly surprising that opposition to these developments in an already fractious and troubled Muslim community would be forthcoming, and come forth they did in various ways. In March 2013, a Kurdish man of Turkish nationality, having decided to try and ‘reclaim’ his wife from a women’s refuge in Oldham, took a roomful of women hostage at said refuge with a shotgun. After a 12-hour stand-off, armed response units stormed the building on hearing shots, only to discover that the man had shot first his wife (who survived) and then himself. Despite attempts by many Muslims to place the blame on the government for supporting the shelters in the first place, the Conservatives stood their ground, claiming that the incident only reaffirmed why women’s shelters were so vital in the first place. Their main response to the incident was simply to provide extra funding for improving security at particularly vulnerable locations.
Far more ominous were the events of July 13, 2014, when a car bomb was driven into the venue of a symposium dedicated to discussing the evolution of Islam in the UK. In attendance were representatives of the UK Council of Ex-Muslims, the Islamic Secularism Foundation, and the Shari’a Reformation Association. The first successful terrorist attack on UK soil since the 7/7 attacks in 2005, this bombing claimed the lives of twelve symposium staff and participants, and wounded 87. Collaborators in the attack were arrested at Heathrow the day of the bombings, and the entire cell apprehended during the course of the next few days, thereby allowing the security services to declare the attack an isolated incident by a group with no connections to international terrorist organizations. Either way, the attacks made it clear to Islam-watchers in the UK that Muslim-Muslim fault lines had the potential to rival other inter-communal hostilities in their importance.
Though it was a development hard to discern at the time, it is now clear that certain important trends were already well underway vis-à-vis Islam in Britain. A profound bifurcation had commenced within the UK Muslim community, and the gap would become ever more entrenched with time. A theologically unruly segment of Muslim Britain, consisting of ‘cultural’ Muslims, ex-Muslims, ‘reform’ Muslims, and others, became increasingly identifiable as having decided that its version of Islam and/or vestigial sense of loyalty to ‘Islamic’ culture was functionally compatible with UK society, law and culture, as they currently existed. Exactly what interpretative knots certain sections of this community had tied themselves up in to arrive at this conclusion was a legitimate question, but the existence of the phenomenon itself was not in doubt towards the end of the 2010s.
In another positive development, the revamped immigration laws not only resulted in a great reduction in the exogenous growth of the UK Muslim population, but helped slow endogenous growth too. It had long been observed by concerned parties that the average number of children born to Muslim women in the UK was largely a function of when and how they had come to the UK. Second-generation Muslim women, bred and born in the UK, though still above the national average in this regard, tended to have significant fewer children than first-generation Muslim women, who tended to be ferried across from the Indian sub-continent as the wives of men they barely knew. As the previously constant influx of non-British Muslims fell drastically, Muslim family sizes started to converge on the national norm, thereby cutting endogenous Muslim population growth.
These direct and indirect effects of the immigration reforms resulted in a substantial drop in the growth rate of the Muslim population as a fraction of the whole. Estimated to be 3.3% (2 million Muslims out of a population of 61 million) in 2008, the 2021 census put the UK Muslim population at 4.0% (2.6 million out of a population of 65 million). Though few were so impolite as to state such things openly, this downward pressure on the growth rate of the Muslim population was a great cause of relief to those who had become concerned about the potential consequences of a rapidly growing Muslim population. That many problems remained was undeniable, but that the sheer size of the Muslim community in any given country was the most reliable indicator of the severity of attendant problems was equally undeniable. Hence the continued support for the 2008 immigration reforms and the vociferous opposition to attempts to repeal them.
Also noticeable, perhaps as a result of these trends, was an incremental improvement in the socio-economic situation of Muslims in general. Falling family sizes, an ever-increasing fraction of the Muslim community born and raised in the UK, and a growing appreciation of the value of educational and professional achievement; all these factors and more helped start to reduce the glaring disparities in income and education between Muslim and non-Muslim Britons. Though this positive development was far from evenly distributed throughout the Muslim community, it represented a major step forward in that large numbers of British Muslims, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent, shook off more and more of the unfortunate legacy of their cultural backgrounds. At the same time, Somalis and certain other Muslim communities continued to lag well behind on every indicator of socio-economic well-being, as the abovementioned divergence of different parts of the UK Muslim community increasingly took on an economic dimension in addition to the existing cultural and religious dimensions.
Just how much more progress the UK had made with respect to its Muslim community than nearby European countries was made very clear with the collapse of civilian government in the Netherlands in 2018. The ripples from the April 17 military coup sent shockwaves through the whole of Europe, but the UK proved to be far more strongly insulated than other less fortunate states. Physical factors were undeniably important; the buffer of the English Channel gave the UK an advantage in dealing with the ramifications of the coup that was clearly not available to, for example, Belgium. Notwithstanding the blessings of geography, however, the remarkable degree of calm that prevailed in Britain’s Muslim community was credited largely to the qualitatively different degree of Muslim integration in the country.
Though there were demonstrations by Muslims in the UK, especially in response to the frequent use of lethal force in pacifying rioting Muslims in the Netherlands, the situation remained calm overall. This was in marked contrast to events in France and Belgium, where riots and burnings erupted across the entire country. The violence was on a scale that it looked likely to spiral out of control until mass arrests and army deployments in key urban areas impressed upon obstreperous Muslims the likely consequences of further escalation.
As this brief account hopefully makes clear, large groups of people who are at least nominally Muslims have made it clear over the last 15 years that they are capable of integrating into British society in a law-abiding and productive manner. This integration is all the more remarkable for having been achieved after a period of rapidly growing difficulties in the first decade of the century. It is undeniable that there are unresolved issues relating to crime, terrorism, and segregationist tendencies on the part of some British Muslims. But the very significant recent gains in social cohesion strongly suggest that, when the state robustly ensures that Muslims are extended the full protection of the law as British citizens, they are more than capable of reinventing their religious and cultural traditions in a manner more amenable to modern European societies.