Faith: The New Class?

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.

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This post raises a really interesting question, but it seems to undermine (or at least potentially undermine) its own claims in two ways.
First, the author goes back and forth between suggesting, in her words, that faith "trumps" class and suggesting, again in her words, that "faith, class and other factors need not be mutually exclusive." While I see the argumentative value of the first claim -- it gets our attention and is likely to stir things up -- I suspect that the latter formulation is probably more on target. But I'd like to hear from Irving which claim she thinks is more correct.
Second, and more important, it's not clear to me from the evidence that's presented here -- and I admit I haven't looked at the reports Irving cites -- that we're talking about faith so much as ethnicity, race, and immigration status. The stats that Irving cites from the National Equality Panel report say that compared with White Christian British men, "Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim men and Black African Christian men" are more likely to earn less. If black African Christians are earning less compared with white British Christians, clearly what matters there is not faith but race and/or immigrant status and national origin.
Likewise, in the OSI report Irving cites, has it truly been established that the operative factor here is that these individuals are Muslim -- and not that they are immigrants, non-white, etc.? Wouldn't you have to do a series of comparisons -- comparing white Muslims versus non-white Muslims, Muslims who are immigrants versus Muslims who are native-born or naturalized citizens, Muslims from France or Western Europe versus Muslims from South Asia or Africa, as well as comparing non-white Muslims versus non-white Christians (or people of other faiths) and immigrants who are Muslims versus immigrants of other faiths -- in order to truly establish that faith is the critical causal factor here?
In other words, how do we know that faith isn't just a proxy for race, ethnicity, or national origin?
Perhaps the OSI report did that kind of research with those kinds of controls. If so, would love to hear more from Irving about that.
Again, this is not to say that Irving is not correct. I'm merely raising some questions I would need to see answered before I can agree with her claims.
Thanks for the provocative post -- and eager to hear more!

I am agree with your article. Faith is very necessary for all. Without faith we miss some important part of life, so we have to keep faith. Thanking for this post.

Corey raises an important issue about the relationship between race/ethnicity and religion as well as class in accounting for disadvantage. Most European countries don't collect data on religion that would allow for the kind of quantitative analysis that would be needed to establish whether there is a 'religion' penalty in areas like employment. Many European policy makers begin with the claim that religion is not a relevant factor to disadvantage, but race/ethnicity is. But without data collection you can not make that claim either way. the OSI reports by collecting some data begins that debate.

The UK is one of the few countries which does collect census and other official data which includes questions on religion. Analysis of this by others suggests that there may be a 'religion' penalty. The closest that existing analysis of labour market data goes is to say that there remains a difference in the labour market participation of Muslims that is not account for by the usual labour market factors. This still leaves the unknown unknown.

However, I would also suggest that instead of asking whether the disadvantge is based on religion or ethnicity or class we allow for the fact that it can be cummulative and multilayered.

Religion can be important to the way in which particular ethnic groups are stereotyped. This varies across western Europe, with Islam being important to the ways in which Turks are viewed in Germany but not Britian, where it is more salient to Pakistanis. In addition to this, the extent to which a person's religious identity is visible is also important in the ways they are treated.

Someone: "Hi... I am agree with your article. Faith is very necessary for all. Without faith we miss some important part of life, so we have to keep faith. Thanking for this post."

well, i was a little bit confused reading this article of h.i.: are really all the class, race and ethnicity discriminations already abolished??, so it remains only the... religious "discrimination", Olé!

A certain reply (from which i'm citing above) drawed my attention; and i think that this guy who so candidly declared the truth, is showing exactly all what is about the "open society" org. and helene irving's stir: promoting religion (no matter which one) disguised in "a fight against discrimination". Promoting more religion in our lives, promoting more religion above our heads... PROMOTING RELIGION...
A good (and useful) deal for us! Especially for those that are soooo dull to fail to acknowledge the "fact" that

"we miss an important part of life without faith. So we have to keep faith".

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