Are Muslims in Britain an ethnic, racial or religious minority?
Press release issued: 31 January 2008
A new study by Bristol University examines 30 years of government legislation and landmark legal rulings to consider the impact of these issues on racial and ethnic minorities.
What kinds of discrimination legislation is there to protect people who are disadvantaged by involuntary identities? What is the thinking behind these protections and what is their outcome?
A new study by Bristol University examines 30 years of government legislation and landmark legal rulings to consider the impact of these issues on racial and ethnic minorities, and finds that current approaches frequently treat anti-Muslim prejudice with less seriousness than other forms of discrimination.
The research is published in the latest issue of Patterns of prejudice.
The study, The politics of voluntary and involuntary identities: are Muslims in Britain an ethnic, racial or religious minority?, by Dr Nasar Meer, Research Associate in the Department of Sociology and the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, reveals that legal formulations of race and racism often ignore how Muslims are discriminated as a racial minority.
Britain has taken a mainly gradual approach in outlawing discrimination based on gender, race and ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, as well as encouraging the monitoring of institutional under-representation among such groups.
Legislation has been introduced successively according to the political climate of the day, but case law has established precedents in the application of race relations legislation to prevent discrimination against some religious minorities, namely Sikhs and Jews, in a way that has not been extended to Muslim minorities because they have not been recognised as an ethnic or racial grouping within the use of the Race Relations Act (1976) (amended in 2000 and 2003).
When legislation was proposed to deal with part of this inconsistency, it was successfully resisted on the grounds that Muslims choose their religion and are seeking protection of their beliefs.
The study finds that this was a mistaken objection based on the view that because racial and ethnic identities are involuntary or ‘natural’, they deserve protection while religious identities are voluntarily held and therefore undeserving of protection. The study also found this distinction does not stand up to scrutiny because it ignores the social operation of race and racism.
Dr Meer argues that categories of race and ethnicity should neither be accepted as the natural order of things nor be immune to variations that emerge out of social contingencies, and that we need to distinguish between the right to religious freedom and the right to non-discrimination.
Dual distinctions between race and religion particularly flounder when it is recognised that many British Muslims report a higher level of discrimination and abuse when they appear ‘conspicuously Muslim’ than when they do not. The increase in personal abuse and everyday racism since 9/11 and the London bombings, where the apparent ‘Islamic-ness’ of the victims is the central reason for the abuse, regardless of the truth of this presumption (resulting in Sikhs and others with an ‘Arab’ appearance being attacked for ‘looking like Bin Laden’), suggests that racial and religious discrimination are much more interlinked than the current use of civil and criminal legislation allows.
The study explains that a ‘Muslim’ appearance, whether or not the individual is Muslim, can cause contempt as an indication for all things Muslim or Islamic. Existing provisions have meant that when a third party (or an entire group) has encouraged an attacker to assault a Muslim on a bus or train because they are wearing a hijab, beard, tunic or turban, or walking from a mosque, for example, they cannot be prosecuted in the same way that inciters of racial hatred can be. The study highlights examples of far-right incitement of racial hatred that has routinely passed un-prosecuted because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has had to meet a radically greater burden of proof in its prosecution of anti-Muslim incitement.
Dr Nasar Meer, commenting on his research, said: “The identity we are assigned with can be a powerful force in shaping our own self-concepts, and this seems particularly true for British Muslims in the current climate of acute objectification and attention, which makes the issue of ‘choosing’ a Muslim identity much less straightforward.
“While on the one hand any legal formulation needs to enable sufficient agency to allow Muslims, and any other minority, to self-define; on the other hand, the term ‘Muslim’ can also be used as a way of categorising certain people, and creating social formations and definitions which those people do not control. Legal definitions of racial discrimination must become more open to this sociological reality.”