Author: Simon Fanshawe, Danny Sriskandarajah
Publisher: Institute for Public Policy Research
Release Date: 28 Jan 2010
Pages: 38


Report titles with phrases such as ‘the end of….’ bring to mind Fukuyama’s vainglorious ‘The End of History and the last Man’, because they convey an illusory sense of certainty. As the case of Francis Fukuyama shows, his paen in praise of western liberal democracy composed in 1992 rings hollow in 2010, when revelations emerge of state sanctioned torture and other violations of international law. The authors of this IPPR report expound ‘the end of identity politics in Britain’ – a statement which cannot be allowed to slip into conventional wisdom without probing and challenge.

Muslims in Britain have been battered by neo-Con thinktanks for pursuing ‘identity politics’. In 2007 Munira Mirza, Abi Senthilkumaran & Zein Ja’far of Policy Exchange co-authored ‘Living apart together British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism’, which argued that Muslims should eschew identity politics because it perpetrated a sense of victimhood. The nub of the argument was that Muslims in Britain should not seek collective solidarity on the basis of faith, because in neo-Con thinking this is ‘Islamist’. In this IPPR study, authors Fanshawe and Sriskandarajah advance the ‘escalator theory’ one more stage: identity politics not only leads to a victim mentality, but “the politics of grievance” nourishes “recruitment to extremism”. We have seen the security argument trumping civil liberties; now it is being used to marginalize campaigns for social justice.

In this prejudiced agenda, Muslim representative bodies are specifically targeted: “It is not surprising that Muslim lobby groups are keen to encourage this [lack of recognition of Muslims as a disadvantaged group] as it gives weight to their demands for special religious and cultural provisions. It also reinforces their image as leaders of a victimized group…community groups are ultimately unrepresentative…”. A further report from Policy Exchange, ‘Choosing our Friends wisely – criteria for engagement with Muslim groups’, co-authored by Shiraz Maher and Martyin Frampton in 2009 continued the ideological war by quoting Amartya Sen and adding further embellishments: “Sen asks, ‘Why should a British citizen who happens to be Muslim have to rely on clerics and other leaders of the religious community to communicate with the Prime Minister’. Such a policy is counter-productive to promoting integration and progressive national identity because it encourages Muslims to see themselves as semi-detached Muslims”.

Unfortunately the IPPR in the report ‘You Can’t Put Me in A Box’ conveys the same line of thinking. It argues that because identity definition is complex, Muslims in particular should not be expected to ‘tick the box’. This is a stand that not only flies in the face of evidence, but is unjust and intellectually sloppy.

The fact is that the majority of Muslims in Britain are quite happy to tick a box that affirms their religious affiliation – 1.6 million did so in the 2001 Census in response to the religion question. They did not choose to tick off ‘None’ or ‘Other’ or even to exercise their right not to answer a voluntary question. In fact a central plank of the Muslim campaigns for the religion question in the Census, initially championed by the UK Action Committee for Islamic Unity and subsequently the Muslim Council of Britain, was that young Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and other first and second generation immigrants did not see themselves as ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’ as their primary identity, but as Muslim.

This was confirmed in the Home Office study ‘Religion in England & Wales: findings from the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey [Report 274, March 2004]; “in contrast to the 17 per cent of white respondents who said that religion was important to their self identity, 44 per cent of black and 61 per cent of Asian respondents said so…for Asian and black respondents religion was in the top three factors considered to be important in their personal descriptions…of 25-to-49 year olds, the largest proportion of respondents who thought religion was important were affiliated to Muslim (64%) and Sikh (58%) faiths. This pattern was also consistent among those aged 50 years and older”.

The IPPR study argues that “the complexity of what is going on in terms of identity in contemporary Britain is staggering. If we take, for example one of the most important but least well under-stood aspects of identity at the moment – what it means to be Muslim in this country – it seems we run a risk of identifying things. Making simplistic assumptions about who identifies as a Muslim or why they do so is dangerous. One recent report on engaging with Muslim youth highlights the complexity of identify formation….”.

So because identity is a complex issue, IPPR proposes to throw the baby out with the bathwater! While Policy Exchange raises the red flag of ‘semi-detached Muslims’, IPPR now ring the alarm bells of the ‘dangers’ of recognizing Muslim identity. Why not pose the question to other manifestations of collective solidarity: does trade union membership lead to ‘semi-detached’ Britons? Do fora such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Hindu Forum of Britain promote ‘dangerous’ social trends’? Is defining Jewish or Hindu identity any less complex?

Shenaz Bunglawala, in a paper for the Muslim media body Engage offers an incisive rebuttal for this type of ‘identity politics is dangerous’ stance: “Muslim political activity is rarely placed on a spectrum recognised as legitimate political activity (on a left/right axis), and feeds the narrative devised around a reformed, rejuvenated British identity that brooks no compromise with other identities in the public sphere. The attempt to redefine the politics of identity to preclude and proscribe a Muslim identity is a shared agenda among ex extremists and the centre right think tanks that promote their works and ideas. By conflating concerns for security with cohesion and integration and rendering Muslim political activism as a direct and indirect threat to both, these groups seek to limit the parameters of democratic politics to explicitly exclude Muslims that carry and bear their faith in public with pride….

Those that denounce political Islam, or Islamism, do so on the basis that the ideology renders Muslims separatist, engaged only through the groups to which they owe their primary allegiance and never on the basis of a shared common platform with fellow citizens. It follows thus that Muslims can only be engaged in democratic politics if their entry into the public sphere is marshalled through a corridor that disposes of religion, and religious groups and organisations, as an influence on their agency. Political Muslims can only be political is they cease to act ‘as Muslims’, and if they act as independent agents, never through Muslim collectives…. The argument gains further support through the undermining of the representative status of those organisations that are criticised for pursuing political Islam. Organisations like the MCB frequently attract criticisms on grounds of its not speaking for the ‘silent majority’ of Muslims. Indeed, detractors argue that the silent majority are apolitical and therefore unlikely to fall behind the MCB’s leadership. The challenge is complemented by the overt support and promotion of other apolitical Muslim groups whose own representative status is rarely questioned and their internal democratic functioning never probed.”

In their report, Fanshawe and Sriskandarajah make reference to Muslims’ ‘rhetoric of grievance’, suggesting that the British Muslim experience of social disadvantage is exaggerated. They claim that Professor Ceri Peach, an expert on ethnicity data, has stated that “taking into account schooling, settlement, mobility and employment, there is little to sustain the charge of systematic exclusion of British Muslims”.

This is a travesty. In reality Professor Peach holds that there are significant internal constraints on Britain’s Muslim communities. He has published his arguments [ESR 2006] stating “The young age structure ensures the rapid growth of Muslims as a whole, low educational qualifications and occupational concentrations in restaurants and taxi-driving type occupations with limited opportunities for progress, suggest that it will be difficult for them to escape from their current economic position. The very low participation rate of Muslim women in the formal labour market means that there are fewer wage earners than in comparable Sikh and Hindu households. Low female economic activity is exacerbated by low male economic activity compared to other groups and by high male unemployment rates. Young age of marriage for Muslim women, contributes to fewer years of education and lower educational qualifications. Young age of marriage contributes to large average family and household size. All of these factors unite to explain the extraordinarily high concentration of the Muslim population in areas of housing multi deprivation, with 55 per cent of Muslims in England living in areas containing the most multiply deprived housing conditions and where only 20 per cent of the total population live….

Comparisons with other South Asian religions, though often unfavourable to Muslims, generally reflect premigration conditions in the sending areas rather than unequal performance since arrival (Ballard 1990). However, British Muslims, taken as a whole, experience a vulnerable economic situation. That said, the known degree of ethnic difference within the Muslim population and the degree to which we do not yet have information on the characteristics of some of the Muslim groups, means that by presenting aggregate data we are capturing the characteristics of a heterogeneous group, defined by religion, but where the precise role played by religion is not clear. What is clear is that for South Asian Muslims specifically, religion is the variable that most distinguishes their vulnerable situation from the more successful positions of their Hindu and Sikh South Asian co-ethnics.”

In view of this, it is incomprehensible how the IPPR authors can state that in Peach’s view Muslims do not experience systematic exclusion.

There should be no doubt that without collective solidarity – or ‘identity politics’ – Muslims in Britain would have remained an invisible and utterly marginalized community. The religion question in the 2001 Census was a major landmark in achieving official recognition. The Census output has subsequently been the basis for better-informed policy making, for example:
Report from the Department of Work & Pensions, ‘Ethnic minority populations and the labour market – an analysis of 1991 and 2001 Census, March 2006: “An ‘ethnic penalty’ remains when comparing the labour market outcomes of different ethnic minorities who have the same age, qualifications and a range of family circumstances. This penalty means greater unemployment for Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Caribbean men and even more so for those born in the UK…the areas with the poorest outcomes from Indians are mainly made up of Muslim Indians…”
Report from the Office of the Mayor of London, ‘Muslims in London’, October 2006: “The 2001 Census included, for the first time, a voluntary question on religion, providing official statistics on faith communities…the Mayor will work with the London Development Agency and other organisations to investigate educational underachievement among Muslim communities in London schools, examine the effectiveness of the provision of training and skills to London’s Muslim communities and devise strategies to remedy any problems identified….the Mayor will work to improve representation of Muslims on the boards and workforces of the Greater London Authority group and work with the government and boroughs with a view to improving representation in all public services and public bodies in London…”
Another practical and immediate impact has been in the provision of government-funded spiritual chaplaincy services in hospitals following a recommendation from medical experts: “Inclusion of a question on religious affiliations in the 2001 Census allows us for the first time to accurately indicate geographical areas where particular religious groups are concentrated, for example, Hindus in Leicester, Muslims in Bradford, and Sikhs in Southall. It is therefore now possible to identify areas in which it would be sensible and feasible to employ specific faith chaplains.”

Perhaps the unwritten agenda for the neo-Con ideologues is that Muslims in Britain should remain invisible and marginalised. In a period of mounting prejudice and discrimination, Muslims will be ill-advised to abandon ‘identity politics’ on the say-so of sofa philosophers.