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Is it true that Muslims in Britain are not ‘integrated’ and how can we measure this?

by on 2014/09/26

In recent months, a number of commentators have restated concerns over the ‘integration’ of Britain’s Muslims. In particular it is claimed that Muslims in Britain have less favourable views of – and therefore attachment to – Britain, and that Muslims seek to cluster together in self-segregating communities. Both of these tendencies, it is alleged, place Britain’s Muslims at risk of becoming ‘radicalised’, and perhaps even encourage political violence at home and abroad.

For example, The Telegraph, tells us that Too many of Britain’s Muslims are failing to integrate. We need to find out why. The Daily Express argues that the state has encouraged Muslims to live apart and that in place of integration it has promoted division and separatism. The Guardian, meanwhile, shares the view that there has not been sufficient emphasis on Muslim integration. Both Daily Mail and The Times have repeated this view too, complaining that Instead of greater integration, the state has promoted separatism by emphasising differences and calling for greater integration and opportunity, respectively. Does the evidence support these concerns? To answer this we need to agree on what we mean by ‘integration’.

What do we mean by integration?

Integration is a concept with a long history. The concept is as old as the earliest social scientific accounts of modernity; insofar as it goes to the heart of how we understand the kinds of social relations that characterise modern societies (e.g., the move from rural to urban, or from communities of kinship to communities forged through the division of labour, etc). This dynamic has been recast in thinking about the integration of ethnic minority diversity, and a large part of European politics reflects the implications of coming to terms with this through cycles of migration and patterns of settlement, whereupon the intermingling of diverse cultural, religious and ethnic groups renews and/or unsettles established social and political configurations. Here integration starts to become a normative (ideal standard or model) debate that describes not only processes of change that occur among groups, but what a principled position on that change should resemble.

If we turn away from the theoretical accounts toward a more applied analysis of Muslim integration, we should ask: what indicators are best suited to measure success and failure of Muslim integration? The indicators identified by the commentators above combine behaviour (in this case residential settlement – or where people chose to live and form communities) and attitude (in terms of how people identify and how strongly). Using these two indicators, what can we say about patterns of Muslim integration in Britain?

Residential Settlement

Residential settlement is commonly identified as a visible sign of non-integration. A prevailing view is that Muslims tend to cluster and develop very strong ‘bonding capital’ (with kith and kin) at the expense of ‘bridging capital’ (with other non-Muslim groups and communities). The 2011 census tells us that 4.8 per cent of the population self-defines as Muslim (over 2.7 million of the UK population), and it is true that a considerable percentage of British Muslims are concentrated in certain local authorities in East London, the North West, Birmingham and West Yorkshire (as well as in areas that border these wards). But it does not follow that this clustering is tightly configured and nor does it mean that the pattern is fixed. If we analyse the demographic distribution using the Index of Similarity, which measures ethnic group concentration, the broad tendency is actually for Muslims to be less separate than other religious groups, and indeed to be more likely to display a pattern of dispersal (e.g. settlement away from family of origin).

As Jivraj (2013: 18) summarises, ‘the Muslim population is relatively evenly spread through England and Wales (Index of Similarity of 54%), which means that the separation factor has decreased since 2001’. As a comparison, the current Index of Similarity for British Hindus is 52%, British Sikhs 61% and British Jews 63%, respectively. Claims that British Muslims have been particularly reluctant to mix with other groups therefore seem unsubstantiated, at least when considering residential location.

Identity and integration

This behavioural tendency is further supported by polling on the kinds of neighbourhoods Muslims would ideally choose to live in. For example, when asked ‘If you could live in any neighbourhood in this country, which comes closest to describing the one you would prefer?’, Muslims are nearly 10% more likely (than non-Muslims) to want to live in ‘Mixed’ neighbourhoods (Muslims and non-Muslims) and half as likely to want to live in exclusively Muslim neighbourhoods than other groups who would like to live in neighbourhoods exclusively reflecting their ethnic or religious groups (Gallup, 2011).

If we move to a further attitudinal indicator concerning self-identification with Britain, we find that Muslims are in some respects highly integrated. In analyses of the UK Government’s Citizenship survey, Heath and Roberts (2008: 2) found ‘no evidence that Muslims…were in general less attached to Britain than were other religions or ethnic groups. Ethnic minorities show clear evidence of ‘dual’ rather than ‘exclusive’ identities.’ These authors point instead to hyphenated identities, showing that 43% of Muslims belong ‘very strongly’ to Britain and 42% say that they belong to Britain ‘fairly strongly’. Taken together, these figures are higher for Muslim respondents than they are for Christians or those of ‘no religion’. What is especially interesting is that this confident British Muslim identity has developed alongside pan-Muslim solidarities, the idea of the Muslim ‘ummah’ or ‘community of believers’. This has proved quite consistent with the widely accepted body of findings, recently reiterated by Wind-Cowie and Gregory’s (2011) conclusion, that ‘overall British Muslims are more likely to be both patriotic and optimistic about Britain than are the white British community.’

The obvious problem with measuring Muslim integration is that it quickly becomes a ‘vortex’ issue that sucks in a range of others (Saggar and Sommerville, 2012). One of these is, of course, ‘extremism’. For despite evidence that Britain’s Muslims are integrated according to conventional measures, international conflict and political violence are in many respects the real drivers of anxiety over Muslim integration.  What is insufficiently registered is that while these are important concerns, they are the exception and not the norm.

Further Reading

Castles, S., Korac, M., Vasta, E., and Vertovec, S. (2002) Integration: Mapping the Field. Home Office: London.

Choudry, T. (2007) The Role of Muslim Identity Politics in Radicalisation. Department for Communities and Local Government. London: HMSO.

Feldman, D. and Gidley, B. (2014) Integration, Disadvantage and Extremism. London: HMSO.

Gallup (2011) ‘British Muslims Feel, Well, British’,

Heath, A. and Roberts, J. (2008) British Identity, Its Sources and Possible Implications for Civic Attitudes and Behaviour. Department of Justice: HMSO.

Jivraj, S. (2013) ‘Muslims in England and Wales: Evidence from the 2011 Census’, in: C. Alexander, V. Redclift, and A, Hussain (eds) The New Muslims. London: Runnymede Trust.

Meer, N. (2010) Citizenship, Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave (2nd Edition 2015).

Meer, N. (2014) Race and Ethnicity. London: Sage.

Modood, T. (2013) Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea

O’Toole, T., et al. (2013) Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance. Bristol: CSEC.

Parekh, B. (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Saggar, S. (2009) ‘Boomerangs and Slingshots: Radical Islam and Counter-Terrorism Strategy’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 35 (3), 381-402.

Saggar, E. and Sommerville, W. (2012) Building a British Model of Integration in an Era of Immigration: Policy Lessons for Government. Migration Policy Institute.

Wind,-Cowie, M. and Gregory, T. (2011) A Place for Pride. London: Demos.

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