Within British media and the Westminster Village, the recent release of the latest census data has sparked considerable debate. Much of this has focused on the extent to which some areas of London have experienced 'white flight', or whether we should be anxious about the fact that less than 8% of the population do not use English as their main language. But underneath the headlines, debate has also focused on the rising number of Muslims in Britain, and the growing presence of Islam within our society.
Behind a large Christian majority, and excluding the non-religious, the census reveals that Muslims are the second largest religious group, and are also the fastest growing. There are now more than 2.7million Muslims in England and Wales, an increase of over one million since 2001. British Muslims now comprise at least 4.8% of the population in England and Wales, which is up from 3% in 2001. In fact, since the heady days of 2001 that saw urban disturbances in northern towns, the number of Muslims in England and Wales has risen by 75%.
Unsurprisingly, these statistics have been met with alarm on the right-wing. Commentators such as Douglas Murray point to the growing Muslim population as indicative of Britain's "troubling future". This follows similar concerns voiced by figures such as former leader of the UK Independence Party, Lord Pearson, who stated in one video: "The fact is that Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us... I do not know at what point they reach such a number that we are no longer able to resist the rest of their demands, but if we do not do something now, within the next year or two, we have, in effect, lost".
These pessimists take comfort from doom-and-gloom prophecies about 'Muslim takeovers', and apocalyptic-style scenarios in which Britain and Europe are being 'Islamified'. They also benefit from a wider circle of anti-Muslim prejudice within sections of British media, which was recently criticized by the Leveson Inquiry for blatantly falsifying stories about Muslims or framing them consistently as problematic or threatening. To date, only a few voices -such as Ian Birrell, Mehdi Hasan, Peter Oborne, Jonathan Freedland and Owen Jones - have taken a stand.
The pessimists (or, more bluntly, Islamophobes) are especially adept at ignoring research that undermines their dreary narratives. We now know, for example, that British Muslims are more likely than other groups in British society to feel satisfied with British democracy. Or that they are just as likely as other groups to feel a duty to vote. Or that they are just as likely as other groups to align themselves with 'British' identity. Or that Muslims of Pakistani heritage are no more likely than other groups to have a strong minority identification.
This kind of work, undertaken among others by the Online Centre for Ethnicity in Politics, is an inconvenient distraction to pessimists, who claim that Islam and its followers are posing a fundamentally threatening the British way of life. Only, the simple reality is that these voices are not only disconnected from actual evidence, but they are also on the wrong side of history.
As my new project with Chatham House reveals, Britain is in the midst of a silent and generational revolution in terms of our attitudes toward Islam. This divide across the generations is deep and significant. Working with YouGov, we surveyed 1,666 British adults, probing their attitudes toward a range of different issues, including Islam and the growth of British Muslim communities.
Consistent with the claims of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who has suggested that anti-Muslim prejudice is relatively widespread, we did find striking levels of public anxiety over the growing presence of Islam and Muslims in Britain.
Consider this: 48% of our overall sample rejected the suggestion that Muslims are compatible with the British way of life; 51% rejected the suggestion that the growth of Muslim communities in Britain does not threaten the survival of the white British majority; and 57% rejected the suggestion that Islam does not pose a serious danger to Western civilization. Strikingly, only 7% felt strongly that Islam does threaten the West, and only 5% felt strongly that Muslims are compatible with the national way of life. Furthermore, almost half of our sample (49%) agreed with the statement 'there will be a clash of civilizations' between Muslims and native white Britons'.
Now, many would stop at this point, concluding that most citizens feel under threat from Islam. But if we drill down further, we find a deep and underlying generational struggle that is taking place in modern Britain. This is reflected in Figure 2, which reveals the extent to which young and old Britons subscribe to markedly different outlooks.
Whereas 77%t of the over-60s view Islam as a danger to the West, the figure among 18-24 year olds tumbles to 38%. Whereas 71% of the older generation view the growth of Muslim communities as a threat to white Britons, the figure among 18-24 year olds slumps to 31%. And whereas 65% of the oldest reject the suggestion that Muslims are compatible, this figure dwindles to 31% among the youngest.
Clearly, there remain challenges, some of which will be tackled directly by the new government working group on anti-Muslim prejudice (of which I am a member). But, as history has taught us, once generational drift has started it is an incredibly powerful catalyst for change. Nor is it confined to the issue of Islam. Researchers such as Robert Ford have shown a similar drift in levels of racial prejudice more generally, while I recently tweeted a graph showing how this also applies to our attitudes toward migration from within the European Union.
This generational drift toward a more liberal and progressive majority will take time. Younger citizens who, over time, will come to replace the 'angry, old white men' will need insulating from the effects of a continuing economic crisis and austerity. Policy makers will also need to work hard to ensure that levels of contact between different ethnic and religious groups (which is important in curbing prejudice) remain strong and robust. And given that these attitudes are most likely among those in society who have benefitted from higher education, ensuring access to both education and labour markets will remain a priority.
The fact that the opportunity has arrived is not up for debate. Whether this social change is realised, however, is. The broad message is clear: Britain is in the midst of a silent and generational struggle against prejudice, which incorporates hostility toward Muslims and Islam. This presents progressives with an opportunity, but they will need to work hard to ensure that it is grasped.
Follow Matthew Goodwin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GoodwinMJ