Sunday, 3 February 2013

Muslims in the UK are still catching up

There are 2.7 million Muslims in England and Wales alone, but almost a third of those at working age have no qualifications.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Not far from Hartlepool’s town centre, blocks of old brick houses are crammed together in neat straight lines, like matchsticks in a box. Many have been boarded up, abandoned and forgotten. Those who are left behind live in a ghost-estate. 

Standing on the grey Dyke House pavement in Hartlepool, a cemetery lurks around the corner. In the opposite direction, the brick rows lead to a large fenced-off garden, at the centre of which stands a yellow mosque, its towering minaret piercing the terraced skyline. Relations between the mosque and the local community are normally warm, but occasionally tensions can arise; the mosque’s windows have previously been smashed and its walls graffitied. Yet, on either side of the open black gates that lead to the Nasir Mosque, people face the same economic hardship being felt throughout Britain. 

Whilst Muslims are the largest non-Christian religious group in the UK - with a population of 2.7 million in England and Wales alone - almost a third of those at working age have no qualifications. Muslims are also the least likely of any religious group to have a degree, the least likely to be economically active and have a high unemployment rate. The latest report by the Office of National Statistics describes British Muslims as “a young, tightly clustered, but often disadvantaged, community”. 

Yet Muhammad Ali, a youth coordinator at the mosque, thinks religion has little to do with the problems British Muslims face. 

“There are a lot people looking for work, but that’s the same everywhere at the moment,” says Ali. “There just aren’t enough jobs out there, whether you have no qualifications or are a graduate. A lot of people are applying, but end up going from one internship to another.” 

Syed Munawar, 19, who also attends the mosque, was recently laid off by JJB Sports. 

“I’d been working there for a year and we just turned up one day and were told to go home,” says Syed. “The store had been closed down overnight. I’ve been looking for a new job, but haven’t found anything yet.” 

Ali is adamant that Islam is not to blame. “Islam promotes and emphasises education, hard work and employment,” he says. 

Professor Ron Geaves, Professor of Studies of Religion at Liverpool Hope University and the chair of the Muslims in Britain Research Network from 2008-2010, agrees. “Islam certainly has always had a very high ethos for education,” he says. 

Geaves, who has worked closely with Muslim communities in Liverpool since 2007, believes there are several underlying factors causing British Muslims to fall behind. 

“Communities which come into the country later tend to be behind in terms of development,” says Geaves. ”You might expect to find lower economic or education levels. You also have to consider where migrants are coming from. If you were to look at an American study, you would find American Muslims at a much higher level. That’s because the USA has always carefully selected migrants with high education levels from professional backgrounds. Here though, since the 1950s, many Muslim migrants have come from rural populations, with working class agricultural backgrounds and it takes them longer to catch up.” 

Geaves has a point. Across the Atlantic, more than a third of American Muslims are earning more than $50,000 a year and 84% describe their finances as between ‘fair’ and ‘excellent’. 

Geaves is confident British Muslims are heading in the right direction. “The catch up factor takes time. If you look at second and third generation Muslim migrants, they are catching up. The performances of Islamic faith schools are also beginning to improve. It is dangerous to say Muslims as a whole are behind.” 

However, Geaves believes there are ways British Muslims can speed up the process of ‘catching up’. “I would like to see an opening up of opportunity,” he says. ”There is an ethos in Muslim communities where vocational careers such as law and medicine are strongly emphasised. I would like to see more Muslims becoming teachers and going into other professions in the public sector that might not be as well paid as law, but make a big difference to society.” 

Added to the economic and educational worries, Muslims are also politically underrepresented. At the last general election, of the 650 MPs elected only eight were Muslims. Had they been represented proportionally, the number would have been approximately 30, but Geaves doesn’t think the two issues are causally related. “I think it’s linked to a number of aspects of British society and the nature of politics. The low number of Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs that we find in parliament is also a part of the same process in which women are underrepresented. The main parties need to look at how they recruit when they are choosing candidates and a social change needs to take place, not just for minorities but women as well.” 

The coalition government are equally keen see wider opportunity at all levels of society. A spokesperson for the department of education says, “Our priority is to transform the education system so that all children are able to access a good quality education, regardless of their background. We must ensure that every child has the opportunity to meet their full potential. Through the expansion of the academies programme and the introduction of free schools we are increasing the number of good school places offering parents genuine choice and higher standards.” 

The government is also overhauling vocational education by opening University Technical Colleges to teach specialist skills, whilst funding the biggest apprenticeships programme the UK has ever seen. 

The locals at Hartlepool’s Nasir Mosque have similar aspirations. “We have a trade and industry committee,” says Ali. “We have organised CV clinics, expert presentations and actively help the youth gain skills, education and increase their employability.” 

Down the road from the cemetery and by the empty houses, the community at Nasir Mosque is very much alive. @Taalay

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