The delicate co-existence of British and Islamic identities

Members of Britain’s Muslim population increasingly find themselves under the microscope. As well as 7/7, the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, the Westminster truck attack and the Manchester Arena bombing, hundreds of British Muslims have recently joined militant transnational Salafist organisations such as Daesh. These events tell a story of a country which is having to cope with the destructive effects of homegrown Islamic radicalisation. These developments have stimulated much social science research into identity formulation and construction in the British Muslim context. Are UK Muslims more likely to identify with their religion rather than their British nationality? If so, is this the direct result of being the most discriminated against religious minority? Or does it demonstrate the sheer strength of orthodox Islamic doctrine on identity shaping and construction?

To address these questions, I will use data from the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study, which remains the most comprehensive survey on BAME socio-political attitudes and behaviour. The survey question of relevance asked to respondents was:

Some people think of themselves first as [religion i.e. Christian, Muslim, Hindu etc.]. Others may think of themselves first as British. Which best describes how you think of yourself?

  • British, not [religion]
  • More British than [religion]
  • Equally British and [religion]
  • More [religion] than British
  • [Religion], not British

Table 1 presents an overview of the trade-off between British and religious self-identification for five non-white ethnic minority groups. The table shows that British Bangladeshis are most likely to report stronger religious identity when traded off with British identification, followed by the Black African and Pakistani ethnic groups. All three groups contain majorities that express stronger religious identification. British Indians are less likely to report a stronger religious identity than their South Asian counterparts by some margin. Indeed, as a group, UK Indians are more in line with religiously affiliated Black Caribbeans in this analysis, with majorities in both groups reporting equal British and religious identification.

Table 1: Percentage of people reporting stronger religious identification (traded off against British identification)

Stronger British Identity Equal British and Religious Identity Stronger Religious Identity
Black Caribbean* 16.1% 52.9% 29.9%
Black African 7.1% 38.0% 53.8%
Indian 13.2% 50.1% 35.7%
Pakistani 5.0% 41.1% 52.5%
Bangladeshi 5.9% 38.6% 55.5%

*Black Caribbeans as a group have a relatively high percentage of people who report no religious affiliation. The figures provided are for Black Caribbeans who reported a religious affiliation. Percentages may not total to 100 as a small number of cases categorised as “Other” are also included in the analysis.

Table 2 presents an overview of British and Islamic identification trade-offs within the UK Indian group (based on religious affiliation). British Indian Muslims are the ethno-religious group with the highest rate of stronger religious identification, closely followed by co-ethnic British followers of Christianity. In the analysis, British Indian Hindus report the highest rate of stronger British identification (14.8%) and the lowest rate of stronger religious identification (32.3%). In the analysis, the figures for British Indian Sikhs are closely aligned with those for the UK Indian Hindu group. The figure for stronger British identification is relatively low among British Indian Muslims (5.7%).

Table 2: Percentage of people reporting stronger religious identification within Indian ethnic group (traded off against British identification)

  Stronger British Identity Equal British and Religious Identity Stronger Religious Identity
Hindu 14.8% 52.0% 32.3%
Sikh 13.6% 50.6% 34.0%
Christian 11.5% 44.2% 44.2%
Muslim 5.7% 48.6% 45.7%


Table 3 shows how British and religious identification is distributed within the UK’s Black African Christian and Muslim groups. Both religious groups report relatively high rates of stronger religious identification. British Black Africans of Christian faith are more likely to express a stronger religious identity than their Muslim co-ethnic counterparts by 2.4 percentage points.  Black African Muslims are more likely to express a stronger British identity by exactly 1 percentage point.

Table 3: Percentage of people reporting stronger religious identification within Black African ethnic group (traded off against British identification)

  Stronger British Identity Equal British and Religious Identity Stronger Religious Identity
Christian 6.7% 37.7% 54.7%
Muslim 7.7% 38.5% 52.3%


In order to explore things more deeply, regression analysis was carried out. The results of the analysis show that even after taking into account self-reported religious and self-reported racial discrimination, level of social integration, neighbourhood deprivation, gender, age, birthplace, education, social class and main language at home, British Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Black Africans are more likely to report a stronger religious identity than British Indians.

Figure 1. Graph showing the predicted probability of favouring a religious identity over a British identity by ethnic group (with confidence intervals).

In the regression analysis, no significant differences can be reported between religiously affiliated British Indians and UK people of Black Caribbean origin. People who are more socially integrated (level of social mixing across a number of “domains” such as friendship group and workplace) are less likely to report a stronger religious identity. Interestingly, older BAME people are less likely to report a stronger religious identity than their younger counterparts.

BAME people who report religious discrimination are more likely to express a stronger religious identity. This suggests that religiously motivated discriminatory experiences may strengthen religious identity and consciousness (and possibly weaken British identity attachments in the process). However, as the analysis controls for self-reported religious discrimination, the notion that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry experienced by British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis can account for their stronger expressions of religious identity is rather questionable. There is also a question over direction of causality. Do stronger pre-existing religious identities make people more sensitive to perceiving negative experiences on the grounds of their own religious background? The significant differences between British Indians and their Pakistani and Bangladeshi counterparts in regards to self-identification also demonstrates the redundancy of the term “South Asian” in the broader field of social science.

Concluding Thoughts

We should be encouraged by the fact that around 4 in 10 British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis equally self-identify with the British and Islamic elements of their personal identities. Equally, we should give thought to the implications of the reality that both groups contain majorities which identify more with their Islamic identity than their British national identity – in a country where, according to the 2011 Census, 95% of the population are non-Muslim. The figures for Britain’s Black African groups are not particularly surprising. The Black African group is far less established in terms of longevity than Britain’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, with a substantial proportion recently arriving from countries with little to no historical association with the UK (such as Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola).

To discuss the place of ethnic minorities in modern British society without making any mention of how they attach themselves to particularised identities in relation to British national identification is most unwise. It leaves individuals – academics, public officials, policymakers, practitioners, journalists – vulnerable to accusations of peddling a politically correct agenda which functions on the ideologically driven, selective use of data.  There are British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who have contributed greatly to various spheres of British life – cross-community projects, the world of business, academia, politics and sport. Indeed, a sizeable proportion identify with their British national identity just as strongly as they do with their Islamic religious identity. This ought to be recognised and celebrated. But in the spirit of robust investigative research, it is important to explore the socio-political complications associated with predominating Islamic identities in the modern-day British context.

The strength of particularistic Islamic identities must be part of the broader debate on national identity and social cohesion in mature liberal democracies with noticeable Muslim populations. Much like the relationship between self-reported discrimination and stronger religious identification, there is also a direction of causality issue between social integration and religious identity. It is logical to think that being socially separated from the mainstream and primarily socialising with “ingroupers” can lead to the development of stronger ethno-religious identities. However, it is also plausible that stronger pre-existing Islamic identities may be associated with an ideological reluctance to integrate and mix with non-Muslim groups – groups which comprise of “nonbelievers” who are not fellow members of the “Ummah” (global Islamic community).

It is important to note that the applied regression analysis controls for self-reported measures of discrimination and level of social integration. This suggests that the strength of orthodox Islamic doctrine may well be influential in identity-shaping processes among British people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslim origin. For researchers and academics to cast aside this admittedly sensitive aspect of the discussion in the name of political agendas are doing both their intellectual community and broader society a huge disservice.


Dr Rakib Ehsan is a researcher who specialises in British ethnic minority socio-political attitudes, with a particular focus on the effects of social integration and intergroup relations. He has had research published by Runnymede Trust, Bright Blue and Policy Exchange’s Integration Hub.

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