Feeling British: the need to recognise the ‘Britishness’ of Muslims in Britain

Dr Saffron Karlsen, Senior Lecturer in Social Research, University of Bristol

Dr Saffron Karlsen, Senior Lecturer in Social Research, University of Bristol

There is a perception held widely in society that Muslim people living in Britain do not feel British. Comments by David Cameron and others, for example, describe a need to address the lack of integration and sense of Britishness among Muslims. As well as addressing more general concerns, this focus on integration is seen as a solution to the apparent terrorist threat,  both by avoiding young people becoming radicalized and ensuring that those who are becoming radicalized are not protected by their supposedly geographically- and socially-segregated communities (see The Independent).

However, this attitude has developed without any empirical evidence. I have carried out some empirical work into these issues, using quantitative data from the nationally-representative Home Office Citizenship Survey. This indicates that in fact 90% of Muslims, and Hindus, Sikhs and ethnic minority Christians who live in this country report a strong sense of personal belonging to Britain. Indeed, Muslims (with a variety of ethnicities) were more likely to report feeling British than Caribbean Christians. These findings directly contradict the perceived ‘desires’ of British Muslims to live in segregated communities.

The strength of this sense of Britishness was associated with age, gender, place of birth and, importantly, risk of racist victimization. Those who perceived themselves at risk of victimization were less likely to personally feel part of Britain or strongly belonging to Britain. Discussions of the ‘Muslim problem’ tend to ignore the role that the attitudes and actions of wider society may play in its generation. Yet while a sense of belonging to Britain, like other identities, will be generated from an individual’s sense of having a legitimate claim to British identities, this sense of legitimacy is affected by the responses of others in wider society. Those who are consistently told that they are ‘not British’ are less likely to feel that they are.

Muslims in Britain are increasingly and disproportionately exposed to verbal abuse, physical violence and other forms of social and economic exclusion. This, combined with the negative attitudes towards Muslims commonly presented by Government ministers, the media and others (see articles in The Telegraph, NewStatesman and The Guardian), will directly affect their sense of acceptance and in turn their sense of belonging within British society. Indeed, the lower sense of Britishness among women in this study may be in direct response to the particular ways in which Muslim women are targeted more generally as a symbol of the problems perceived to be inherent to Islam and also in the particular role ascribed to them in Government anti-radicalization agendas. Questioning the loyalty of already-loyal citizens runs a direct risk of generating/exacerbating the very problem these commentators seek to avoid/reduce.

There is frequent discussion among the Government and media of the frustration which currently exists among young Muslims, encouraging them to become criminalized and radicalized. It is argued that this frustration stems from a confusion caused by the apparent incompatibility inherent in the British and Muslim cultures which they inhabit. Interestingly, respondents in my research did not perceive a similar incongruity: more than three-quarters of British Muslims in the study did not perceive an incompatibility between fully belonging to Britain and maintaining a separate cultural/religious identity. That Muslims were less likely to perceive this incompatibility than Caribbean Christians may again speak to the impact of external factors, and the ways in which wider societal discussions about this supposed incompatibility affect an individual’s sense of this potential, regardless of the available evidence. Younger people in this sample were significantly less likely to feel British. But, complementary research suggests that much of this frustration stems from a sense among many young British Muslims that their rights as British citizens to fair treatment and freedom of expression are not being respected[1]. This frustration is not about being Muslim, then, it is about a lack of accommodation of their Britishness.


[1]Geaves, R., (2005) ,‘Negotiating British Citizenship and Muslim Identity’, in Abbas, T. (ed), Muslim Britain: Communities under Pressure. Zed Books: London.