Yesterday, in a very good seminar on the Paris riots (2005/6), I was reminded of figures on religious and national identity. The speakers found it interesting that a higher proportion (81%) of British Muslims consider themselves first as a Muslim and second as British, compared to those in France (46%). This is seen as evidence that British Muslims are less likely to feel they belong.
Now, I’m not sure whether British Muslims are less likely to feel they belong here (what I do know is that the French Muslims I meet in London say they are more comfortable here as they feel the UK is less racist.) I don’t think the figures above really help us, as a simple question like this creates more questions than answers.
First, the question was framed in terms of being ‘British’ or ‘Muslim’ over here. As we all know, Britishness more complicated than most nationalities. Because we are a United Kingdom, many people consider themselves to be English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, before British. Therefore, choosing between British and Muslim is not the same as choosing between French and Muslim.
Second, Britishness has an element of religion attached. We have an established church, and our queen is also the head of the Church of England. This is one reason why many Irish Catholics born and bred here consider Irishness to be ahead of Britishness.
Third, the Muslim populations of Britain and France are very different. Many British Muslims trace their roots to Pakistan or Bangladesh, and as Timothy Garton Ash points out (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1840737,00.html) Pakistan is the only country scoring higher on this question.
Finally, this points to the key difference present in the binding of history and the present. The French empire, and its treatment of those within it, was different to the British empire. It is said that France had more of a ‘civilizing mission’, trying to make the residents French, whereas the British were more interested in money. The places were different, the ending of colonial rule different and the drawing of boundaries done differently (partition of India is probably key). Colonial and post-colonial citizenship is viewed differently and so on.
The only similarity is that some Muslim people moved to Britain and France from their colonies, during and after empire. The complications of how and why they moved and how they were received makes any comparison about belonging meaningless.
The Pew Report