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Muslims in Britain Today – an ethnically diverse religious group

In this article, an up-to-date overview of the Muslim population of Britain is presented, with a focus on ethnic diversity.
© Cardiff University, Asma Khan

In this article, an up-to-date overview of the Muslim population of Britain is presented, with a focus on ethnic diversity. Ethnicity is introduced as an important intersection in the experiences of most Muslims in Britain and the impact of racism on mental health is considered.

In 2011, the Census of England and Wales data revealed that Muslims constituted 5% of the population. Muslims were the largest religious minority group. Christians were the largest group at 60%, followed by those with no religion at 32% (ONS 2021). Population estimates, produced using data from the Annual Population Survey 2019, suggest that the Muslim population has increased in size by one-fifth, to 5.7% of the population. In 2018, there were an estimated 3,372,966 Muslims in England and Wales (ONS 2018).

In 2015, the Muslim Council of Britain published the report, ‘British Muslims in Numbers’, based on analysis of data from the Census of England and Wales in 2011, which revealed a picture of ethnic diversity among British Muslims (MCB 2015). Muslims constitute approximately one-third of all ethnic minority groups in Britain and are an ethnically diverse religious group. In 2011, South Asians of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian ethnicities composed two-thirds of Britain’s Muslim population, Pakistanis were the largest ethnic group within the British Muslim population at 38%. Whilst most (circa 95%) of British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are Muslim, the Indian group is more religiously diverse and includes Hindu, Sikh, and Christian religious groups (Heath and Martin 2013).

Diversity increased between 2001 and 2011: the South Asian Muslim population decreased by 6% while there were increases in other ethnic groups. Approximately 20% of the increase in the Muslim population in this period can be attributed to increases in the ‘Other Asian’ and ‘Other Black’ ethnicity categories, reflecting settlement from areas of conflict and civil unrest in African countries and Afghanistan. The ethnic category of ‘Arab’ was included in the 2011 Census for the first time, this group formed 7% of the Muslim population. Continuing global socio-political conflicts and socio-economic disparities mean that we are likely to see further increases in the both the size and diversity of the Muslim population in Britain in coming years.

Most Muslims belong to visible ethnic minority groups, only 8% of Muslims were in the ‘White’ category in the Census of 2011 (MCB 2015). This means that in societies like Britain where there is evidence for racism in the national healthcare system of the NHS (Kapadia, Zhang et al 2022), most Muslims are likely to experience ethnicity as a disadvantage. This can impact on both their subjective sense of wellbeing and their experiences of seeking mental health support.

Experiences of racism are known to have a negative impact on the mental health of visible ethnic minority groups (Mental Health Foundation 2016). Islamophobia (discrimination against Muslims) is also considered part of the ‘landscape of racisms’ in Britain (Shankley and Rhodes 2020). Therefore, those who are both visibly Muslim and visibly ethnic minority may experience additional disadvantage in the healthcare system and their experiences of wider society – with impacts on both their mental health and their experiences of seeking support. Ethnicity is therefore an important intersection in the mental health experiences of Muslims in Britain.

We cover the impacts of Islamophobia on mental health in more detail in Week 2.

Implications of ethnic diversity among Muslims for practitioners

Practitioners might find it helpful to be aware of ethnic diversity among Muslims for the following reasons:

  • religious practices and beliefs, and understandings of mental health, can vary significantly between different ethnic groups of Muslims
  • ethnic cultures from particular regions can become intertwined with Islamic practices and beliefs.
  • some Muslims may prioritise their religious identity over their ethnic identity, and therefore separating out religious requirements from ethnic norms may be helpful to reassure them that they are meeting the requirements of their faith – particularly when ethnic norms around mental health (stigma and shame) may prevent them from accessing support for their mental health in ways which are permissible in Islam.
  • there is robust evidence for health inequalities for some ethnic minority groups in Britain, and racism is considered be a key factor in the mental health experiences of these groups.

In the next step, we review evidence for health inequalities on the basis of ethnicity in Britain and consider what these might mean for Muslim mental health.

Over to you

In the comment section below, give a short summary of what you have learnt about ethnic diversity among British Muslims in this step. If another learner writes a similar summary, reply to their comment adding one more thing you’d like to have covered.

© Cardiff University, Asma Khan
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