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The generation gap in Britain’s attitudes towards Islam

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post‘s UK Politics blog

Within British media and the Westminster Village, the recent release of the latest census data has sparked considerable debate. Much of this has focused on the extent to which some areas of London have experienced ‘white flight’, or whether we should be anxious about the fact that less than 8% of the population do not use English as their main language. But underneath the headlines, debate has also focused on the rising number of Muslims in Britain, and the growing presence of Islam within our society.

Behind a large Christian majority, and excluding the non-religious, the census reveals that Muslims are the second largest religious group, and are also the fastest growing. There are now more than 2.7million Muslims in England and Wales, an increase of over one million since 2001. British Muslims now comprise at least 4.8% of the population in England and Wales, which is up from 3% in 2001. In fact, since the heady days of 2001 that saw urban disturbances in northern towns, the number of Muslims in England and Wales has risen by 75%.

Unsurprisingly, these statistics have been met with alarm on the right-wing. Commentators such as Douglas Murray point to the growing Muslim population as indicative of Britain’s “troubling future“. This follows similar concerns voiced by figures such as former leader of the UK Independence Party, Lord Pearson, who stated in one video: “The fact is that Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us… I do not know at what point they reach such a number that we are no longer able to resist the rest of their demands, but if we do not do something now, within the next year or two, we have, in effect, lost”.

These pessimists take comfort from doom-and-gloom prophecies about ‘Muslim takeovers’, and apocalyptic-style scenarios in which Britain and Europe are being ‘Islamified’. They also benefit from a wider circle of anti-Muslim prejudice within sections of British media, which was recently criticized by the Leveson Inquiry for blatantly falsifying stories about Muslims or framing them consistently as problematic or threatening. To date, only a few voices -such as Ian BirrellMehdi HasanPeter OborneJonathan Freedland and Owen Jones – have taken a stand.

The pessimists (or, more bluntly, Islamophobes) are especially adept at ignoring research that undermines their dreary narratives. We now know, for example, that British Muslims are more likely than other groups in British society to feel satisfied with British democracy. Or that they are just as likely as other groups to feel a duty to vote. Or that they are just as likely as other groups toalign themselves with ‘British’ identity. Or that Muslims of Pakistani heritage are no more likelythan other groups to have a strong minority identification.

This kind of work, undertaken among others by the Online Centre for Ethnicity in Politics, is an inconvenient distraction to pessimists, who claim that Islam and its followers are fundamentally threatening the British way of life. The simple reality is that these voices are not only disconnected from actual evidence, but they are also on the wrong side of history.

As my new project with Chatham House reveals, Britain is in the midst of a silent and generational revolution in terms of our attitudes toward Islam. This divide across the generations is deep and significant. Working with YouGov, we surveyed 1,666 British adults, probing their attitudes toward a range of different issues, including Islam and the growth of British Muslim communities.

Consistent with the claims of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who has suggested that anti-Muslim prejudice is relatively widespread, we did find striking levels of public anxiety over the growing presence of Islam and Muslims in Britain.

Consider this: 48% of our overall sample rejected the suggestion that Muslims are compatible with the British way of life; 51% rejected the suggestion that the growth of Muslim communities in Britain does not threaten the survival of the white British majority; and 57% rejected the suggestion that Islam does not pose a serious danger to Western civilization. Strikingly, only 7% felt strongly that Islam does threaten the West, and only 5% felt strongly that Muslims are compatible with the national way of life. Furthermore, almost half of our sample (49%) agreed with the statement ‘there will be a clash of civilizations’ between Muslims and native white Britons’.

goodwinNow, many would stop at this point, concluding that most citizens feel under threat from Islam. But if we drill down further, we find a deep and underlying generational struggle that is taking place in modern Britain. This is reflected in Figure 2, which reveals the extent to which young and old Britons subscribe to markedly different outlooks.

Whereas 77% of the over-60s view Islam as a danger to the West, the figure among 18-24 year olds tumbles to 38%. Whereas 71% of the older generation view the growth of Muslim communities as a threat to white Britons, the figure among 18-24 year olds slumps to 31%. And whereas 65% of the oldest reject the suggestion that Muslims are compatible, this figure dwindles to 31% among the youngest.

goodwin2Clearly, there remain challenges, some of which will be tackled directly by the new government working group on anti-Muslim prejudice (of which I am a member). But, as history has taught us, once generational drift has started it is an incredibly powerful catalyst for change. Nor is it confined to the issue of Islam. Researchers such as Robert Ford have shown a similar drift in levels of racial prejudice more generally, while I recently tweeted a graph showing how this also applies to our attitudes toward migration from within the European Union.

This generational drift toward a more liberal and progressive majority will take time. Younger citizens who, over time, will come to replace the ‘angry, old white men’ will need insulating from the effects of a continuing economic crisis and austerity. Policy makers will also need to work hard to ensure that levels of contact between different ethnic and religious groups (which is important in curbing prejudice) remain strong and robust. And given that these attitudes are most likely among those in society who have benefitted from higher education, ensuring access to both education and labour markets will remain a priority.

The fact that the opportunity has arrived is not up for debate. Whether this social change is realised, however, is. The broad message is clear: Britain is in the midst of a silent and generational struggle against prejudice, which incorporates hostility toward Muslims and Islam. This presents progressives with an opportunity, but they will need to work hard to ensure that it is grasped.

Matthew Goodwin

Published inBritish PoliticsIslamophobia


  1. Bert Bert

    Is it not the case that the younger generation are not islamaphobic for the reason that we have grown up in a society where we are constantly interacting with Muslims and many of our friends are Muslims? We don’t see them as a threat because we know that they aren’t. We know that they want the same things as we want – a safe and secure upbringing for their children and the financial security to lead a comfortable life. Of course Islam threatens to change the British way of life, but that is what makes it such a positive thing. If Irish immigrants, Jewish immigrants and many other groups that have settled in the UK hadn’t brought their ways of life and cultural attitudes with them, then Britain would not be the vibrant place it is today.

    Older generations on the other hand have had much less contact with Muslims in their daily lives. They grew up when the threat of Communism was constantly being broadcast across the media, and when this so called ‘threat’ was eradicated a new indoctrination began which had as its subject the threat that Islam supposedly poses. They are used to having an ‘other’ that is intent on destroying society as we know it, it provides comfort for them, and a simple explanation for what is in fact a very complex series of changes in the world. This view is perpetuated by the right wing press, and is very dangerous.

    I think the older generation is attached to this view of what it means to be British that the younger generation just does not subscribe to. If being British means flying the Union Jack above your door, wearing a poppy and looking down on anyone who doesn’t, singing the virtues of the Empire from your doorstep, and only eating fish and chips because that foreign stuff ‘stinks and anyway is too spicy’, then yes ‘Britishness’ is being lost forever. But I’m sorry, anyone under the age of about 60 does just not see this as being an adequate description of Britishness, and the sooner this world view disappears the better.

    • Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

      Well said, Bert. I have noticed the processes you describe in my own family. I hope you’re right about where the age break comes – it may well be significantly higher in large cities than in rural and semi-rural areas.

    • Hugo Lindum Hugo Lindum

      Could it not be that as one gets older one gets more experience and less naive? Thinking of myself, at the age of 18-24 I would certainly have regarded Islam as benign. 25 years later, and having lived in Moslim countries, my view is the opposite. You seem to think that people’s views are formed and solidify as they reach the age of 18. While this is probably true for musical taste, it isn’t for many other aspects.

    • kafur kafur

      Bert my friend….

      You are right, we do see muslim’s doing no harm and getting along with us, We saw this in Germany too and Japan, whilst their soldiers were off murdering other lands.

      You need to learn about what Sharia law will do to you if muslims get the higher population.

      They already have EVERY supermarket selling Hala food apart from Morrisons and McDonalds. We already have Halal Banking.

      UK is slowly becoming Sharia related, we are being overthrown.They have more babies than us….

      Youll see how wrong you are mate.

  2. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Is any of this in the slightest bit surprising?

    Doesn’t it simply reflect the difference (among white Brits) between those who had Muslim kids in their school classes and those who didn’t?

    As to the Muslims themselves, I’m only interested in poll reults where the pollster can certify that the fieldwork was done by other Muslims, and preferably in their first language.

  3. Bob Sinclair Bob Sinclair

    An interesting article, and similar to ones I have read from other liberal publishers. In terms of the generational change of views, has it never occurred to you that a large portion of people in the age range 18-24 have a far more short term view on life? That looking, or planning, into the future isn’t of great concern right now?

  4. Bob Sinclair Bob Sinclair

    I will also add that if Islam is so positive, and therefore should be encouraged to grow within the UK, why is it almost all Islamic countries are in a state of Civil unrest? Those that are not UAE, Iran. Brunei have strict Sharia Law. Is that the future desired by the Liberal populace of the UK?

  5. James B Jack James B Jack

    Why don’t Muslims look at the state of the countries from whence they came and ask the question: “What has Islam done for them.” Answer:
    “Nothing!” And that too is precisely, in the main, what the migrants have brought with them.

    Islam is in its death throes and all the cries one hears are of despair as they begin to understand the success of Christianity.

    Islam has no part to play in a modern world.

    • arsh arsh


    • arsh arsh

      Islam is the start, islam will be the end, the only religion which made to be prevailed by Almighty ALLAH.

  6. scott scott

    why is it that liberal/progressive writers on issues like this are so bloody one sided.
    Discrimination and intolerance comes from Muslims to you know, I know the left like to pretend that isn’t the case but it really is.

    Can we please come back down to earth and stop this “blame whitie for everything” rhetoric

    Diversity works in London, it really does, in the majority of the rest of the country it does not, though it doesn’t matter, the mass immigration will continue at the NET 200,000 a year, the country will continue to transform – then we will eventually see problems, not everyone wants your progressive diverse dream, most of the public are sick of immigration – but wont listen, so now their voting on it (UKIP of course)

  7. nope nope

    left wing rubbish, so your saying Shari law is acceptable and its ok for english people to lose their culture. All Muslims have no interest in English heritage or its values or its history – also the Muslim communities cost the tax payer 18billion a year on benefits, half the men dont work and 90 percent of the women dont work. So what country were you thinking of in the future one filled with goat herders and the political structure sent back 300 years with zero growth in technology, if you Havant noticed Islam doesn’t really invent much. Wake up they want to take over stop immigration stop Islam.

  8. Oh my goodness! Amazng article dude! Manyy thanks, However I am having difficulties
    with your RSS. I don’t know tthe reason why I can’t join it.
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