Faith identity as a defining aspect of individual or collective identities has not been unknown in the history of United Kingdom, but public awareness of it has increased since the 1980s. Many people will mark the Rushdie Affair as one of the key turning points for identity politics in Britain, shifting the discussion from class to ethnic and religious factors of identity. But has the debate turned again?
In January 2010, Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, stated that "Persistent inequality of socio-economic status – of class – overarches the discrimination or disadvantage that can come from your gender, race or disability." Harman’s statement came in reference to the recent report from the National Equality Panel, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK, which looked at six “strands” of inequality – gender, age, ethnicity, religion, disability and sexuality. The report shows that class still remains an important issue in the UK but that faith is a significant factor in social mobility. For example, compared with a white British Christian man with similar qualifications, age and occupation, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim men and Black African Christian men have an income that is 13-21% lower. Nearly half of Bangladeshi and Pakistani households in the UK are in poverty.
Findings from the recent Open Society Institute report Muslims in Europe offer a similar picture in respect to Muslims living in 11 cities in Europe. The survey found that many Muslims work in marginal and low-paid jobs which lead to segregated or parallel working lives. In addition, Muslims are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than non-Muslims; 19.8 percent of Muslims involved in the OSI survey are unemployed, compared with 6.8 per cent of non-Muslims.
One of the participants of an OSI focus group in London stated: “They do discriminate against us as Muslims, but this kind of discrimination is done so delicately and so intermittently that it doesn’t come out often.” But it is coming out: our research suggests that religious discrimination against Muslims remains a critical barrier to full and equal participation in society, and this is not inconsistent with other research. So, in an age when public policy and politics cannot ignore the role that religion plays in people’s sense of belonging, has faith trumped class?
To explore this question further, the Open Society Institute and the British Council are hosting a free debate at the British Library on March 25, 2010. Aryeh Neier, president of OSI, will be co-hosting the debate and making an opening speech. Speakers include Anwar Akhtar of the samosa, Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, Maleiha Malik of Kings College London, and Mike Hardy of the British Council. The debate will be moderated by Razia Iqbal, BBC Special Correspondent. Registration details can be found on the Our Shared Europe website.
This debate raises questions at a time when the British public is about to decide on its next government and make important choices about who best reflects and appeals to their increasingly complex and diverse sense of identity. We first need to reflect on who we are and what primarily defines us and drives our choices – and faith, class and other factors need not be mutually exclusive.