Social Mobility Commission’s (SMC) December 2016 report Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility highlighted the “broken promises for many groups” in recent Britain. Its key findings drew attention to four categories of people that were struggling for good jobs and better opportunities in life: White British vulnerability to school underperformance; Black underperformance in secondary and higher education; broken mobility promises for Asian Muslims, particularly women; and female underperformance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.
The House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) made a similar point on the Muslim community in its report on Employment opportunities for Muslims in the UK in August 2016. The report found that “Muslim people suffer the greatest economic disadvantages of any group in society”. The community is facing a huge disadvantage in catching up with others. With unemployment rates more than twice that of the general population (12.8% compared to 5.4% and 41% economically inactive compared to 21.8%) their economic woes are far greater. Particularly vulnerable are Muslim women, 65% of whom are economically inactive.
With the majority of Britain’s 2.7 million Muslims hailing from the Indian sub-continent, Asian Muslims’ success or failure impacts upon rest of the community. According to the SMT report, although Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin children, especially girls, are doing better than average in educational achievements this is not being translated in the labour market. Higher unemployment rates amongst Asian Muslims have thwarted their overall economic progress and holding back their social mobility. Only a small proportion is moving up the ladder to occupy managerial or professional occupations.
There are multiple factors behind this lack of progress vis a vis the Muslim community. Some are internal and they need to be seriously addressed by the community itself. Muslims originate from the four corners of the world and have varied socio-economic backgrounds; many started their life in Britain in the lower rungs of the social pecking order. There are also cultural issues such as family expectations and practices in some sections that inhibit them from playing a fuller part in Britain’s social life.
The majority of Muslims live in Britain’s inner city conurbations which generally have the hall marks of poor housing and other disadvantages. Although much improved in recent decades, young Muslims do not yet see enough role models in public life from their community. As the social capital of the community is relatively low and the middle class is still small, its ability to catch up with other successful minority communities is still limited.
There are also unfortunate political realities in recent times such as the tendency amongst some in the wider society to see Muslims as “Others”; they are often treated as a suspect community. This needs to be tackled head on by the government with appropriate policies that would help demystify this attitude. Seeing Islam through the prism of security, particularly after 7/7, has unfortunately become normalised; negative portrayals or stereotyping of Muslims has become a pastime to sections of the media. All this feeds on prejudice, intolerance and Islamophobia giving rise to discrimination in public life.
The Government Equalities Office (GEO) admitted that Muslims are held back in the jobs market and suggested a number of strategies to improve the situation of not only Muslims and Muslim women but also other people facing similar difficulties.
A coherent cross-Government plan focused on specific groups is essential to do the heavy lifting for all disadvantaged communities. The Equality Act applies to everyone, regardless of gender and faith. All should be free to make their own choices in their lives, including education and employment.
No one underestimates the challenges of violent extremism in a small section of our youth, but the conflation of integration with counter-extremism that has been experienced primarily by Muslims has become counter-productive. This needs changing. The effective way to countering extremism is through a robust implementation of equal opportunities programs to improve the life chances of all. This is also one of the antidotes to intolerance and social fracture.
Muslims have a significantly larger youth populations compared with the wider society (48% compared to 31% aged 24 years and below, according to Census 2011) and thus have huge potential to perform better in a rule-based meritocratic society like Britain. Urgent action is needed by the community itself to look beyond their educational success in order to achieve across all sectors of life. The civil society and business sector can also offer their helping hands to take down the barriers that young Muslims are facing in public life.
We live in a world of gross inequality. Recently, the international development charity Oxfam published a report that found “just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world”. Grotesque inequality amongst human beings is untenable and dangerous for the world. We must work together to make sure Britain works for all.
No community should be left to falter in 21st century Britain. Since Brexit, Prime Minister May has been talking about an inclusive Britain. It is time our government comes up with practical sustainable plans with measurable objectives to tackle the inequalities faced by disadvantaged groups like Muslims.
This article was originally submitted to Huffington Post.