The press, and public, is too hung up about the number of Muslims in the UK.
I couldn't resist the trite title. Fretting about 'Britishness' seems to be at heart of what it means to be British. It has a familiar feel to it in our media, and not just the tabloids: 'Britain sees Muslim baby boom' says Rupert Murdoch's The Australian, reprinting an article from another of his organs, The Times over here, which talks of 'Rise in Muslim birth-rate as families "feel British"' (full story behind paywall).
How does "Muslim birth-rate" sound? I don't recall reading any stories about "Christian birth-rates" recently. Of course, in Britain the 'Muslim birth-rate' is a small (tiny even) segment of the British birth-rate. So let's not forget that, before we talk about Muslims, we are talking about numbers of births generally. Singling out Muslims, as so often happens, is a marker of 'otherness', foreignness, the precursor to being seen or marked out as somehow unwelcome or 'not one of us'. And yes, 'us' is a divisive word which we need to stop using.
It's no coincidence that the Christian Muslim Forum, the UK's largest network of Christians and Muslims, has been campaigning on Britishness and Englishness over the last year. We began with our St George's Day #StGeorge4All campaign and then with a push on British Muslim identity, followed by a #Christmas4All drive over the holiday season (welcoming Muslim participation in Christmas).
So let's explore this story 'Muslim birth-rates' from a less worried angle.
A little myth-busting
Decline in church attendance has nothing to do with other religions, conversions or with an ethnic group. In fact Christian economic migrants, such as those coming from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Christian asylum seekers, are generally more religious, and probably have higher birth rates than the average too, if anyone is counting. And yes we are counting. The more telling and larger figure is the number of those who call themselves Christian. The 2001 census recorded that 72% of us identified as 'Christian', which I think surprised people at the time, because it was so high. The 2011 census dropped to 59%, a fall of 13%, but which still dwarfs the total Muslim percentage of the population (under 5%). This is a difference of millions of adults by the way, not 300,000 babies .
I've just invented the '10/90 rule'. Ethnic minorities account for 10%, or less, of our total population but some of us in the other 90% still seem to be talking about being 'swamped' or 'taken over' by this low percentage! We see what we (choose to) see and ignore the rest, which is why some people think that 20% of the UK population is Muslim and perhaps media reporting (sometimes more akin to spin-doctoring) encourages people to think so.
There is a disused pub just down the road from my home, but it is not closed because of a growing Muslim population: like most towns in the UK the local Muslim population here is less than 1%. Pubs are disappearing due to social change, economics - people socialise and drink more at home - and the difficulties involved in being a pub landlord, perhaps exacerbated by the recent period of austerity.
Contrary to the views quoted in The Times of the Professor of Demography at Oxford University, David Coleman (who just so happens to be the founder of the right-wing pressure group Migration Watch), the figures for Muslim births are not startling. They simply represent a small group with a higher birth-rate than the majority, the mainly white-European population whose own birth-rate has been declining steadily for some time. This declining birth-rate is a European phenomenon. But we're living in a time of an ageing population: the stark fact is that we need to produce more young, working age people if future pensions are to be paid.
Nor is the number of Muslim institutions startling. The numbers of mosques are growing slowly. I wrote last year about vigorous anti-mosque campaigning in an article titled Mosque-Busters and Mega-Masjids (which also reflects on the vexed question of 'Britishness'). The figure of 1600 (approx.) mosques, quoted in the article, has been in use for around 10 years. Also the number of Muslim schools is tiny compared to the number of Church of England, or other non-faith, schools. We are talking about a minority and 'we' need to be more welcoming, and here is my final challenge.
We need to do better!
In a shared society, which all of us build, we have to have responsibilities (and, hopefully, good manners) towards each other. It can never only be one group, or that dreaded word 'side', which is entirely in the wrong. If there was more acknowledgement and inclusion of Islam in our schools there would be fewer Muslim schools - as Muslim educators and parents have told me themselves. Also, many Muslim parents would rather send their children to a Church of England school than a non-faith alternative. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the patron of the Christian Muslim Forum and one of our trustees is an imam and Islamic educator, so there is a good relationship between the Church of England and the Muslim community.
Stop fretting and start talking - yes, we all need to do better. We can't moan about lack of integration if we are not making our own efforts, it does take two to build a bridge, to be mutually welcoming and hospitable. And not to ask that awful question, 'Where are you from? No, where are you really from?' of people who are British, as Sarita Agerman describes in a recent blog.
The Christian Muslim Forum, as well as other inter faith organisations, has a leading role in really grappling with these issues, rather than scaremongering, promoting negativity or, in the worst examples, preaching hate. And if you want to encourage Britishness please support our work and attend some of our events, the next one is on Conflict.
Julian Bond is director of the Christian Muslim Forum, the UK's largest inter faith network of Christians and Muslims @ChrisMusForum