Pew Research has released a new report on the Muslim population of Europe. The report suggests that the UK Muslim population is significantly higher than previously thought and even without the effect of migration is likely to significantly increase due to higher birth rates among Muslims.
This confirms what Barnabas Fund suggested several years ago that the UK Muslim population is probably somewhat higher than official estimates. It also raises serious concerns for issues of religious freedom for Christians and other religious minorities in the UK.
The 2011 census put the Muslim population of the UK at 2.71 million, representing 4.8% of the UK population. The Pew Research report suggests this has now grown to 4.13 million, representing 6.3% of the UK population. However, as these figures do not include asylum-seekers the actual figure is likely to be even higher.
The Pew report also projects three possible future scenarios: i) zero migration which will result in the Muslim population rising to 6.56 million, representing 9.7% of UK population by 2050; ii) similar long term rates of migration to those seen before 2016 which would result in the UK Muslim population rising to 13.06 million by 2050, representing 16.7% of the population; iii) high rates of migration resulting in a Muslim population of 13.48 million, representing 17.2% of the UK population by 2050.
The recent rise in the number of Muslims in the UK has been driven by two main factors i) a much higher birth rate than the wider population; ii) high rates of annual migration – with around half of all migrants coming from Muslim majority countries, which is substantially higher than the proportion of the population as a whole.
Why does this matter? It matters because surveys done over the last 15 years have consistently shown that whilst the majority of British Muslims are peaceful and tolerant a significant minority hold strongly anti-Christian views. For example, in 2007 the Guardian newspaper reported that a survey of more than 1,000 UK Muslims found that nearly a third of Muslims aged 16-24 believed that anyone who left Islam to become a Christian should be executed and 37% wanted to live under sharia rather UK law.
Similarly, in April 2016 an ITV programme by former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips presented the results of an extensive face to face survey of UK Muslims by ICM. This poll, which focused on areas that were at least 20% Muslim, found that:
- 23% supported the creation of areas where justice was administered by sharia courts rather than UK law, a figure which equates a total of around half a million UK Muslims.
- 35% thought polygamy was acceptable.
- 18% were sympathetic to those who use violence against anyone who mocked Muhammad.
Whilst it is heartening that the majority of Muslims do not hold these views, the numbers who do, combined with the possible doubling or tripling of the UK Muslim population, creates the potential that the situation of Christians living in some predominantly Muslim areas of the UK will become increasingly difficult. In particular, we would draw attention to
- The violence currently experienced by Christians who have converted from Islam. For example, Nissar Hussain twice had to move house from Muslim-majority areas of Bradford, the last time under armed police protection.
- This violence has now begun to target Pakistani Christians such as Tajamal Amar who was attacked a few weeks ago in Derby.
- We are currently seeing a spillover from pro-blasphemy law protests in Pakistan into the UK
We have already seen some Islamist groups attempting to mount sharia patrols to enforce Islamic law in some predominantly Muslim parts of the UK. We are also seeing far right groups mounting counter patrols in mainly Muslim areas. Both of these groups seek to restrict freedom of religion for others.
The Islamists seek to prevent churches sharing the Gospel in these areas of the UK and particularly target anyone giving out tracts or engaging in other forms of evangelism saying “you can’t do that here – this is a Muslim area”; while far right groups seek to prevent Muslims meeting for worship.
This situation is being fuelled by government attitudes to sharia which are “at best” ambivalent, such as the review of sharia courts set up last year, whose terms of reference included looking for examples of “good practice.”
It is vital that the British government defuses this situation before it gets out of hand. To do so it must address the root cause of the problem – which is the denial of religious freedom by both Islamist and far right groups and increasingly also by a new intolerant strand of secular fundamentalism. The government can do this by passing a law guaranteeing all seven aspects of freedom of religion which have emerged over the last five centuries in the UK, some aspects of which have never been formally guaranteed in our laws:
- Freedom to practise a faith (achieved 1689).
- Freedom of worship, including public reading of scripture (achieved 1547).
- Freedom to interpret Scripture without state interference (achieved 1559).
- Freedom to build churches, synagogues, mosques etc. without state registration (achieved 1812).
- Freedom to choose or change a faith or belief system (achieved 1689).
- The freedom to preach, evangelise and seek to convince others of the truth of one’s beliefs (achieved 1812).
- The absence of any requirement for people to assent to a particular worldview or set of beliefs (Test Act) to hold public office (1888), work in professions such as teachers or lawyers or attend university.