In 2016, a Social Mobility Commission report determined that Pakistani and Bangladeshi youth were the least socially mobile ethnic group in the UK.
I was asked by the Commission to follow up the work, and look at the experiences of young Muslims, particularly those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage, across the country.
The focus groups and interviews we conducted exposed serious failings in the education system and labour market, as well as widespread racism and Islamophobia.
Penalised and pigeonholed
Negative stereotypes from students, teachers, advisors and employers were extremely prevalent.
There’s an unfair assumption that Muslims aren’t aspirational, and only want to work in industries and positions that are traditional in their community.
An interview subject explained his experience of this issue:
“I had to really fight my corner to study history because I just don’t think he [the advisor] could get his head around that; I could almost see him thinking 'don’t you want to be an accountant?’” (Leeds interview: male).
Another described how her ambition had been stifled:
“I said, Miss, I want to change the world. She said you’re not clever enough and you’re not smart enough to ever change the world” (Oxford Focus Group 2: female).
For some, it was misconceptions of Islam that were the problem:
“I went for one job and it was near Ramadan and they just said 'no thank you'. I think they thought I wouldn’t turn up for weeks” (High Wycombe FG: female).
Islamophobia and the ‘triple disadvantage’
Working-class Muslim girls face a triple disadvantage – from their religion, from their gender and from their socioeconomic background.
The assumption that Muslim girls will marry early holds them back in jobs, and in education. They are routinely relegated to lower sets at school, and are neither readily hired nor promoted. These low academic expectations go alongside high expectations of behaviour:
“I don’t think that they expected more of Muslim students in terms of education but they would always refer back to you being a Muslim when they wanted me to ‘behave yourself’” (Liverpool Focus Group 2: female)
Many of the girls we interviewed noted that they were constantly forced to explain and defend their headscarves or hijabs at school and at work, and in one instance had theirs forcibly removed by a teacher.
Such overt instances of Islamophobia were more common when Islamist militants were in the news. Muslim students frequently found themselves defending their religion – even themselves – in the wake of terrorist attacks.
In such instances, it was often reported that some teachers or academics would ignore bullying or discrimination, and were unwilling or unable to discuss Islam objectively.
Needless to say, studying in a hostile environment is not conducive to effective learning:
“I’m traumatised by education. I don’t want to pursue it anymore.” (Liverpool Focus Group 1: female)
A normalised issue
In undertaking this research, I was shocked to hear the extent of everyday Islamophobia in the UK.
But the interviewees were unwilling to play the victim. They qualified their day-to-day abuse by comparing it to that of their parents – who were discriminated against for their immigrant status, as well as for their religion and ethnicity.
The gratitude that young Muslims felt towards earlier generations was evident across the country. Although Islamophobia and racism were still prevalent it was seen as a vast improvement on the experiences of their parents.
Solving the problem
Preventing such a significant proportion of the UK population from reaching its potential is not only a wasted resource, it is deeply unethical. We have to recognise that UK Muslims work exceptionally hard, and allow them the rewards they deserve for doing so.
But it is not down to individual Muslims, or even the Muslim community, to solve the problem.
Religious literacy needs to enter places of work and education through teachers, lecturers and employers.
Those in positions of power need to be fully educated on Islam and Islamophobia, and trained in discussing different viewpoints – no matter how uncomfortable the topic.
The next step is to decolonise the curriculum. We need to recognise that our education comes from a position of white privilege, and incorporate viewpoints that reflect the UK’s diverse nature. Transparency on the attainment gap for Muslims is also urgently required.
How you can help
Religion and secularity are important topics – and are central to our lives. We should discuss them, and place them in the open. Otherwise, stereotypes and bigotry take root.
We need to stop, listen and engage with one another – even if the conversation is difficult.
In their 2016 report, the Social Mobility Commission spoke of an implicit social contract: “that those who work hard will have a fair chance to get on”.
Let’s make sure that this implicit social contract is made explicit – and is acted upon.
This research and article recognises that the British Muslim community is not a single homogeneous group.