British Muslims held back by widespread Islamophobia, study suggests

Muslims in the UK are not able to reach their full potential in education or in employment, according to new research

Children from Pakeman Primary School arrive to lay flowers in tribute to the victims of a June 19 van attack in at Finsbury Park mosque in north London
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British Muslims are being held back at every stage of their lives due to widespread Islamophobia, a new study shows.

Research for the government’s social mobility watchdog reveals that young Muslims are not able to reach their full potential due to the racism and discrimination they face, whether in education or in employment.

“The report uncovers significant barriers to improved social mobility for young Muslims from school through university and into the workplace - with many reporting experience of Islamophobia, discrimination and racism,” a statement from the Social Mobility Commission said.


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Although many young people, especially girls, from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds are likely to succeed in education and go on to university, this does not translate to the labour market.

Only 6% of Muslims are in higher managerial, administrative and professional roles, the report found, compared with 10% of the overall population.

Alan Milburn, who chairs the Social Mobility Commission, said the report painted a “disturbing picture” of the challenges that Muslims face.

The former Cabinet minister said “The British social mobility promise is that hard work will be rewarded. Unfortunately, for many young Muslims in Britain today, this promise is being broken.”

The report showed that among 16- to 74-year-olds, only one in five (19.8%) of the Muslim population is in full-time employment, compared with more than 1 in 3 (34.9%) of the overall population in England and Wales.

The problem is especially acute among Muslim women, who are more likely than other British women to be economically inactive. Overall, 18% of Muslim women aged 16 to 74 were recorded as “looking after home and family” compared with 6% in the overall female population.

Mr Milburn said: “Young Muslims themselves identify cultural barriers in their communities and discrimination in the education system and labour market as some of the principal obstacles that stand in their way.

“Young Muslim women face a specific challenge to maintain their identity while seeking to succeed in modern Britain.”

A team of academics led by Sheffield Hallam University explored the reasons behind this broken “social mobility promise” by examining young Muslims’ perceptions and experiences of growing up and seeking work in Britain.

They found that many young Muslims felt they must work “ten times as hard” as non-Muslims just to get the same opportunities due to cultural differences and various forms of discrimination.

Students face stereotyping and low expectations from their teachers, while there is often a lack of Muslim teachers or other role models in schools.

Participants in the study also said they faced widespread discrimination when trying to secure employment, with minority ethnic-sounding names seen as reducing their chances of getting interviews.

Once in work, Muslims found that they routinely face racism and harassment, while women wearing the headscarf in the office suffer additional discrimination.

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, from Sheffield Hallam University, said that the study showed the prevalence of “casual Islamophobic attitudes” in the UK.

Speaking exclusively to The National, Professor Stevenson said: “There are very mixed views over what ‘being Muslim’ means. It often gets collapsed into ‘Islamist” because of a lack of understanding and because of some media reporting.”

She warned that international students, such as those from the Middle East coming to British universities, should be made aware of this distorted perception of Muslims in the UK.

“Broader issues around immigration and terrorism have sadly shaped people’s attitudes. At the same time, there needs to be a recognition of merits of having a diverse workforce.”

The report made several recommendations to improve social mobility. They include mentoring and support programmes for school-age Muslims, better teacher training with a focus on religious diversity, and the implementation of a careers strategy by the Department of Education that promotes informed choices by pupils, free from stereotypical assumptions.

It added that business bodies should promote greater awareness and take-up of good unconscious bias, diversity, religious literacy and cultural competence training by employers.

Professor Stevenson told The National that it is often the smallest things that make a big difference.

“For instance, a willingness to arrange after-work social events in places which don’t serve alcohol. The same applies to school, for example, by not scheduling exams late in the afternoon during Ramadan, when many students have been fasting all day. These little things would make a huge difference.”

“As a whole, there needs to be a greater and more sensitive understanding of Islam as a religion,” she added.

Mr Milburn also acknowledged that there are no easy solutions, but said the onus on creating a more inclusive environment lay with the government and communities, as much as with educators and employers.

“A truly inclusive society depends on creating a level playing field of opportunity for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background,” he said.