Islamophobia and the success British secularism

Fraser Nelson has an interesting column in today’s Telegraph claiming that:

The integration of Muslims can now be seen as one of the great success stories of modern Britain. While the Dutch and the French have huge troubles with integration, and are caught in agonised struggles about their national identities, Britain is marked out by the trouble that we are not having. Dig a little deeper, and the real story is the striking amount of harmony…..British Muslims don’t really feel a sense of otherness. In fact, polls show they’re much more likely to identify with Britishness than the general population. The Citizenship Survey found that most Muslims agree with two propositions: that Islam is the most important thing in their life, and that their primary loyalty lies with the British state. Most are baffled by the idea of a tension between the two.

I unsurprisingly agree. However, I think that Nelson goes awry when he starts trying to analyse why this might be. He seems to suggest that the reason is that “Britain is, through empire, the original multi-ethnic state.”

I shall leave aside why Nelson considers the British Empire rather than say the Roman Empire should be considered the original multi-ethnic state. But having had an empire with millions of Muslim subjects does not set Britain aside from France and the Netherlands. Massive chunks of the Islamic world such as Algeria and Indonesia were ruled by the French and Dutch. An imperial heritage is something that unites Britain with our continental neighbours rather differentiating us.

He also seems to locate part of the reason for a lack of Islamophobia in a shared resistance to secularism by different faiths:

Anyone serious about either religion will know that they both worship the same God – and their stronger ties are, in part, forged by the knowledge that they have a common enemy in secularism. The kind of secularism that would stop people wearing crucifixes and skullcaps in public, as well as the niqab. When the Council of Europe came out against religious circumcision, it was natural that Manchester’s sizeable Jewish community would protest. But less expected for Manchester’s Muslims to join them. Both have plenty to fear from the abridgment of religious freedom in a Britain that is – by some measures – the least religious country in the rich world.

There is a lot wrong here. More specifically:

1. This is not a factor that applies anymore to Britain than say France and the Netherlands.

2. Fraser probably overstates the significance of non-Muslim faith communities. Virtually all the anecdotes he uses are of Christian, Jews and Muslims coming to each others aid. But do Western Europe’s embattled churches and synagogues really have that much influence over broader public opinion?

3. A year ago, I wrote a thesis on how the legal system deals with claims of Christian who think they have been discriminated against. That involved reading a lot by and about people who fret about the threats to “people wearing crucifixes.” I can attest that they do not see themselves as part of a common front with Muslims. They seldom mention other faiths and tend (bizarrely in my opinion) to think that Christianity is being singled out.

Where I think secularism might be important is in its different varieties. So in countries like France there have been concerted secularist campaigns to drive religion from the public sphere. In Britain, however, the removal of religious privileges happened incrementally and imperfectly. The reasons for this difference lie in Britain’s longstanding religious diversity. In France Catholicism dominates the religious landscape. In Britain by contrast the established Anglican Church has always existed alongside numerically significant Free Church and Catholic populations. Thus the objective of British secularists has been to create space for religious plurality rather than to tame a potentially overbearing faith.This resulted in a much less aggressive approach to faith. Britain’s constitution and public life is littered with fragments from our more theocratic past like bishops in the House of Lords.

What perhaps (and I emphasise that perhaps) sets Britain apart is that our history has created a political culture that reconciles secularism with religions including Islam.

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