The new Census figures from the Office for National Statistics for England and Wales reveal some startling, if perhaps unsurprising, changes over the last decade. For a start, we are mixing more, getting married less, religious affiliation is falling and the growth of immigration has altered the demographic makeup of certain areas of the nation.
Among the key points revealed are the fact the population is growing (to 56.1 million) of which 86% are now white (the mixed-race population has risen to 2.2%). Just under half of us (46.6%) are married, and the number of households where everyone speaks English is 91% (4% speak no English at all). In London the picture is more varied, where just 59.8% describe themselves as white and 37% say that they were born in a foreign country.
Around a quarter of the population now has no professed religion (compared to 14.8% in 2001), with Christianity suffering a significant hit (down to 59.3% of the population, from 71.7% in 2001). However the 'loss' of religion is not unique to Britain. As most developed countries become increasingly secularised, religion is taking the hit. America is losing religion. According to an extensive survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the number of people with no particular faith today (16.1%) is "more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children". Among 18 - 29-year-olds, one in four say that they are not religious.
Muslims under scrutiny
Many headlines have seized on the fact that Muslims now make up nearly five percent (4.8%) of the English and Welsh population, to 2.7 million (up from 3% in 2001). In London Muslims now make up 12.4% of the city, followed by the West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber (both under 7%).
At the same time, especially after the London bombings in July 2005, the level of prejudice against Muslims has multiplied. The hate spewed out in the past by far-Right groups against the Jews, Catholics and Blacks has now shifted against Muslims. These communities have all in their time been accused of undermining traditional British values and living parallel lives with strange language, clothing and customs. Today it is the Muslims who are seen in that light. Since its formation in 2009 the English Defence League (EDL) has tried to intimidate Muslims by holding numerous protests, sometimes violent, against mosques and Muslim institutions. At the same time right-wing media and certain think tanks have fanned the flames of such hatred. The Muslim community has been urging national politicians to do something about this blatantly negative coverage, but the response has been less-than-overwhelming. The current Government even refuses to deal with mainstream Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), despite research showing that British Muslims often express a stronger sense of belonging than other citizens. Sadly, negative perception is overshadowing this reality.
Nearly two years ago the Tory Minister Baroness Warsi flagged the issue head-on, saying that "hostility to Muslims has passed the dinner table test." In Lord Leveson's massive inquiry into the Press presented a grim view of how Muslims have been deliberately targeted by elements of the popular media.
Our collective challenge
The Muslim community is by-and-large a law abiding, loyal and enterprising community. The MCB has welcomed the Census results saying "the growth in number points to the fact that Muslims play a significant part in the increasing diversity of Britain".
The community has a younger age profile than any other group. However, they are also clustered in deprived inner city areas, under-achieving in education, unemployment and often living in overcrowded conditions. This is a real challenge both for leaders of these communities, for the young within them, and for our politicians.
Vision and reality might have differed, but ironically Islam itself has had historical success in accommodating diverse peoples. It is a communitarian religion and urges its adherents not to confine themselves to their own clan, tribe or race; it encourages them to serve people around them, in the neighbourhood and in the community. Indeed, several Muslim organisations (as well as various Muslim-interfaith groups) have launched cross-community neighbourhood schemes. Therefore in a pluralist society where multiple identities are not seen as a threat, Muslims can naturally flourish. Like any other community, they may have conflicting theological, social and political trends, but their recent categorisation by right-wing think tanks as moderate, extremist or fundamentalist is both unhelpful and inaccurate.
In fact, I would argue that ghettoisation is antithetic to Islam. It comes from fear and a 'survival instinct'. Confident Muslims do not (and should not) have this fear and they should be colour-blind. They can interact, participate and engage with all for a common good. Those that are 'colour-blind' are already contributing to the mosaic of the new British pluralism and its rich culture. Some Muslims may advocate an isolationist approach for fear of 'losing' their religion in a secular environment, but isolationism is against the spirit of Islam.
Diversity is strength. Muslims themselves are very diverse: something they, and we, should not forget. There are brown, black and white Muslims across the country, tracing their heritage across many national and ethnic boundaries, as well as denominations. Such diversity can be bound together into a greater whole: just look at the success of the London Olympics and Paralympics in forging a new identity for our nation.
To build interconnected, not segregated or parallel, communities we now need to move beyond simple 'tolerance' of others. Genuine respect, appreciation of other communities, and positive interaction are required and should be encouraged. It is time to celebrate the strength of modern pluralist Britain without undermining any community in that process. As such, there is no excuse for scaremongering by the increase of Muslim population in Britain.