The 2011 British census provides a snapshot of the country’s Muslim population, which now stands at almost 2.8 million — 4.4 percent of the country’s overall total. Most live in cities like Birmingham, Bradford, and, of course, London, whose Muslim population, at a bit over one million, is 12.4 percent of the city’s people.
Philip Lewis, a scholar of Islam at the University of Bradford, has emphasized the variety of the Muslim population across the country.
Though the largest number, at 1.26 million, are of Pakistani descent, Britain’s Muslims are a very diverse group of people, originating in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia — places where Britain once ruled an empire.
So while wealthy Arabs buy up chunks of prime real estate in central London and the West End, impoverished immigrants from Bangladesh crowd into tenements in the city’s poor East End, with its high unemployment, chronic over-crowding and the worst child poverty in the land.
Muslims account for almost a tenth of babies being born in England today. So many schools have a majority of Muslim students — and some have become controversial.
In the 2011 census, 21.8 percent of the Birmingham population identified themselves as Muslim. This past January, the head teacher (principal) of the city’s Saltley School and Specialist Science College, a facility that serves a socially deprived inner-city community in Birmingham, resigned, saying he could no longer face relentless criticism from its Muslim-dominated school board.
It had pressed him to replace some courses with Islamic and Arabic studies, segregate girls and boys, and drop a citizenship class on tolerance and democracy in Britain.
As there had been previous complaints about other schools, Britain’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) carried out an inspection of 21 schools in Birmingham. Its report concluded that pressure from fundamentalist Islamic school board governors had created a culture of “fear and intimidation” in a number of the city’s schools, including Saltley.
“Some head teachers reported that there has been an organized campaign to target certain schools in Birmingham in order to alter their character and ethos,” according to the report. It also said that some senior teachers claimed they had been “marginalized or forced out of their jobs.”
The report stated that in one school “boys and girls are also taught separately in religious education and personal development lessons.” Another stopped Christmas and Diwali celebrations, and subsidized trips to Saudi Arabia for Muslim students.
As a result, five schools, including Saltley, were placed in “special measures,” while a sixth was labelled inadequate for its poor educational standards.
Britain’s newly-appointed education secretary, Nicky Morgan, called the information disturbing.” Meanwhile, the governors of the Saltley School resigned in protest at the way their school had been treated by Ofsted. Dr. Mohammed Khan, who was chair of the governors at the school, said there had been “no conspiracy” to force out the head teacher, who is a Sikh.
The report’s findings were also criticized by the Muslim Council of Britain, which declared that it was wrong to conflate conservative Muslim practices with an alleged agenda to Islamicize school systems.
The Council argued that “extremism will not be confronted if Muslims, and their religious practices are considered as, at best, contrary to the values of this country and at worst, seen as ‘the swamp’ that feeds extremism.”
In late August, though, British Prime Minister David Cameron criticized the policy of multiculturalism, and declared adherence to “British values” a “duty.”
Cameron remarked that “Britain is an open, tolerant, and free nation. We are a country that backs people in every community, who want to work hard, make a contribution, and build a life for themselves and their families.”
But, he added, “We cannot stand by and allow our openness to be confused with a tolerance of extremism, or one that encourages different cultures to live separate lives and allows people to behave in ways that run completely counter to our values.”
So in Britain as elsewhere, the debates over integration, multiculturalism and tolerance continue.
Henry Srebrnik is a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island.