British Muslims and the meaning of the Census

British Muslims
7 min read
24 January, 2023
Analysis of the 2021 UK census data reveals a much more complex picture of religious and demographic change over the last ten years than appears at first glance and is a factual counterargument to such fear-mongering, writes Sadek Hamid.

Just over a decade ago the French writer Renaud Camus coined the term “great replacement” in his book Le Grand Remplacement.

Camus argued that non-white people in general and Muslims, in particular, were displacing European populations through mass migration, demography and falling birth rates among white people.

This idea has been popularised further by the likes of Eric Zemmour, who warned of the lethal consequences of mass immigration in his book Le Suicide Francais.

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This fear of a demographic crisis has since become mainstreamed by various right-wing political parties, and media commentators and used by some Republicans in the US partly explains the rise of racism and Islamophobia in Europe.

Murray was quick to blame the declining numbers of British Christians on immigration and has described London as having “become a foreign country”

Britain has its own advocates of the replacement theory – right-wing, columnist Douglas Murray, authored his articulation of such existential anxieties in The Strange Death of Europe

Following the publication of the recent Census, Murray was quick to blame the declining numbers of British Christians on immigration and has described London as having “become a foreign country”: ‘If we want peace we need one thing – less Islam’, and that “no one voted for ” diversity in Britain.

He and other right-wing commentators claimed that cities in the UK such as London, Birmingham and Manchester are now “minority-white cities.”   

The growth of Muslim populations, the end of Western global supremacy and the displacement of white populations by “outsiders” have become an ongoing nightmare for xenophobes and racists across the continent.

Analysis of the 2021 UK census data reveals a much more complex picture of religious and demographic change over the last ten years than appears at first glance and is a factual counterargument to such fear-mongering.

There are three striking findings to emerge from the census – the first is the number of people identifying as Christians dropping from 59% in 2011 to 46% in 2021.

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This makes Christianity a minority religion in England and Wales. The Bible Society has suggested that the shift away from Christian belief occurred gradually during the last decade as people became less willing to identify with a faith that no longer had a bearing on social approval.

This correlates with observations made by Professor Linda Woodhead, a professor of religion and sociology, who noted a "failure of liberal Christianity to provide an intellectual theology, and credible answers on matters of belief, so it had lost its cultural capital."

"The second main finding was the increase of those who identified as having ‘no religion’ – which has increased to 37%, up from 25% in 2011"

Shifting patterns of ageing, fertility, mortality, migration and social attitudes also help explain these changes.

The second main finding was the increase of those who identified as having ‘no religion’ – which has increased to 37%, up from 25% in 2011.

This included  32,000 Agnostics, 14,000 Atheists, and 10,000 Humanists. This indicates dissatisfaction with traditional forms of religion and the rise in alternative spirituality.

According to the ONS figures, 0.6 percent of Census respondents (348,000)  ticked “Other Religion,” in addition to the six world faiths listed (Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh) it included 74,000 Pagans.

The largest increase was seen in the number of people describing their religion as Shamanism – an increase from just 650 in 2011 to 8,000 in 2021.

After ‘no religion’, the number of Muslims rose by 4.9 percent to reach 6.5 percent  (3.9 million). Hindus made up 1.7 percent (one million), up from 1.5 percent and the number of Jewish people remained broadly the same at 0.5 percent, but rose slightly from 265,000 in 2011 to 271,000 in 2021.

The third main feature was that the British Muslim population had increased to nearly four million people. Growing from its previous count of 2.7 million in 2011, and prior to that in 2001 was 1.55 million.

This represents a substantial increase but is hardly a demographic takeover even if this trend continues over the next few decades.  

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To put this in perspective, the total population of England and Wales is in the region of  59.6 million. This actual figure of Muslims in the UK stands in sharp contrast to the rhetoric and perception that implies much higher numbers.

Muslims predominantly live in cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Luton and Bradford. The top 5 locales with the largest number of Muslim residents are Birmingham, Bradford, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Manchester and the London Borough of Newham.

Overall, the UK continues to become a more diverse nation, with the minority ethnic population standing at 18% of the overall population, compared to 14% in 2011.

What do these figures mean in the foreseeable future?

In three separate scenarios, the US Pew Research Centre projected the Muslim population in the UK in 2050, to grow to 9.7 percent of the total population (zero migration scenario), 16.7 percent (medium migration scenario) and 17.2 percent (high migration scenario).

These are predictions that only time will tell and will be affected by various factors.  

More importantly, numbers do not say much about the experiences of British Muslims, who evidently have become an essential part of British society and have been for hundreds of years.

In fact, there are many forgotten histories of trade, diplomatic and migratory exchanges between Britain and the Muslim world from the 7th Century onwards, and have been documented in recent books such as Britain and Islam: The History from 622 to the Present Day by Martin Pugh and Fatima Manji’s Hidden Heritage: Rediscovering Britain’s Lost Love of The Orient.

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In an increasingly ageing population, British Muslims make a huge contribution to the country’s financial prosperity, and civil society and have also helped economic recovery in the post-Covid era.

However, British Muslims are also struggling with racism, demonisation, and securitisation. They have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic

Islamophobia continues to be a challenge for all of society.

The MCB and many other studies have documented these challenges – British Muslims still face disproportionate levels of deprivation and analysis indicates that 40% of the Muslim population of England live in the most deprived fifth of local authority districts; which is almost 482,000 more than in 2011.  

As the MCB, Secretary General,  Zara Mohammed stated: "This is especially worrying given the concern on access to opportunity and inclusion. Policymakers now need to address these concerns, communities cannot continue to be left in cycles of poor social mobility. Young people cannot have a bright future if they do not have the best opportunities available to them."

"British Muslims were instrumental in securing the addition of the religion question in 2001"

Clearly more needs to be done to address economic inequalities and encourage social inclusion.

British Muslims were instrumental in securing the addition of the religion question in 2001. And while the increased demographic presence is a cause for celebration for believers, more difficult conversations need to be had about growing social challenges within communities such as family break down, parent-child generation gaps, increase in mental health problems, the alienation of young people from their faith and increasing numbers leaving Islam.

More research needs to be done to ascertain the scale of those abandoning their religion and “cultural Muslims” who have little attachment to Islam.

The dynamics of cultural assimilation and the loss of faith are powerful as more Muslims are becoming atheists and the issue then becomes one of faith being replaced by disbelief.

If these challenges are not discussed and addressed more widely – the number of people identifying as believing Muslims in the UK may not be reflected by the expected increase in the next decade.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.

Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid