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C is for Census

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

In April 2001 a population census will be taken in the United Kingdom. A Census is taken every decade and the collected data is the single most important source of information for government. Various government departments and corporations also collect statistics, and these are all vital in the process of conducting modern government and for capitalist enterprise. Politics and business are highly numerical. Numbers matter, especially for those with power.

The difference with the Census that will be taken next year is that there will possibly be a question on religious affiliation on the Census form. This is not yet clear but it seems that the proponents of the 'religion question' have succeeded in convincing the politicians to make it law. But anything can still happen.

In any case, the Muslim Council of Britain has over the past number of months made great efforts to have the questions on the Census form. The MCB provides many cogent reasons why such a question would benefit Muslims in the country. Muslim numbers require that they receive more support from public funds for their community projects, schools, and other initiatives than what they are presently given. In their arguments, however, they do at places confuse ethnicity and religion for the connections between 'race', 'national origin' and religion are complex. The state has privileged 'racial' identity over 'religious' identity. Religion has to be given a space and is a category in people's minds and deeply shapes their sense of identity. But it is not the only identity that people have.

If the Census includes the question then the campaign will have been successful. But then Muslims have to be informed to write down their religion because it will be optional to answer the question. This should not be too difficult. But the Muslim advocates of the 'religion question' should be aware that this is not the end of their work.

Statistics can easily be an end to intelligent and hard political work for there is a widespread belief that 'the numbers will prove that we are significant'. The numbers will have to be used, appropriately and judiciously. It should not mean the end of strengthening the organisations of Muslims and developing the political sophistication of the Muslim public and their individual spokespersons, politicians and associations. The great danger is that with the weight of numbers the Muslim public will rest on it, and wait for the goodness of the authorities to recognise the facts. In any case, processing the figures will take some time and it will be months if not a couple of years before the data will be available, and as everyone knows, 'a week is a long time in politics'. Furthermore, the 'numericisation of politics' can mean the impoverishment of political strategy.

Census and numbering have been part of liberal governments' technologies of democracy and power over the past 200 years. (The first British census was in 1801, and the General Register Office was established in 1841 from which date the modern Census begins.) Ever increasingly sophisticated methods of counting and numbering have meant greater stores of detailed and intimate knowledge about populations. The spheres of government and control have expanded tremendously in modern times. Statistics and Census data have been invaluable in the development of techniques of government and control, and significantly the spread of consumption as a way of life. Ethno-marketing (and perhaps 'religio-marketing' after Census 2001?) has been enabled by the production of numbers on specific groups in particular spaces e.g. the Turks in Berlin. The Turks can use this data but so have German companies bent on capturing Turkish cash before it gets repatriated to Istanbul.