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Divided but linked by faith: Brexit and UK Muslims’ attitudes towards Europe

Donia Touihri-Mebarek
p. 139-156

Résumé

While issues of race and diversity have significantly dominated the rhetoric of Brexit Leavers and have shaped Britons’ attitudes towards membership of the European Union (EU), ethnic and religious minority voters’ attitudes towards Brexit have received little investigation. This article aims to fill this research gap by focusing on Muslims. It examines what differentiates Muslim Remainers from Muslim Leavers by focusing on their motivations to vote for or against Brexit. Despite being the religious group that was the most supportive of EU membership, the EU referendum has also created identity divisions amongst Muslims and has shed light on their ambivalent attitudes towards Europe and the benefits of EU membership. Several cumulative and cross-cutting factors have polarised this group regarding EU membership, such as their different perceptions of Europe and European identity, as well as issues pertaining to discrimination and Islamophobia, immigration and the economy.

We argue that, beyond the divisions, Muslims’ attitudes towards Brexit were strongly correlated with the concept of ‘linked fate’, with the religious paradigm being an important predictor of Muslims’ voting behaviour.

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Introduction

  • 1 Salam, Hamza Azhar (2020), 800,000 Muslims voted for Brexit, say Leave leaders”, TheNews, 6 Februar (...)
  • 2 Ford, Robert et Goodwin, Matthew (2015), Revolt on the Right: Explaining support for the Radical Ri (...)
  • 3 Martin, Nicole S., Sobolewska, Maria et al. (2019) “Left out of the left behind? Ethnic minority su (...)
  • 4 The use of the acronym BAME in reference to Black Asian Minority Ethnic groups has garnered much cr (...)
  • 5 Nicole S. Martin and Khan, “Ethnic Minorities at the 2017 British General Election”, London: Runnym (...)

1Speaking in the aftermath of Britain’s effective withdrawal from the European Union (EU), Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, praised members of the Muslim for Britain network who had gathered in Westminster for the event ‘Brexit Delivered’, for their contribution to the Brexit vote, which, he said, received 800,000 votes from Muslims.1 However, despite this important result, understanding the reasons for such political upheaval has been narrowed to understanding why a significant proportion of the White British population voted against EU membership and how this group has become deeply polarised over identity politics. The main narrative accounting for the Brexit vote has been conceptualised based on being ‘left behind’ or ‘the losers of globalisation’2, which encapsulate a category of Brexiters mainly composed of old, less-educated, white, working-class men who feel they are not receiving their share of an increasingly globalised and diverse society. Therefore, this focus on Whites not only oversimplifies the debate, but also fails to consider how race and ethnicity have shaped attitudes towards EU membership.3 As Martin and Khan observed, the lack of research on ‘leavers’ amongst ethnic minorities4 is all the more puzzling because support for leaving amongst minorities was higher than it had ever been in the Conservative Party.5

  • 6 This category includes Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chinese and other Asians (census 2021).
  • 7 Begum, Neema (2018), “Minority ethnic attitudes and the 2016 EU referendum” in Brexit and Public Op (...)
  • 8 The question of religious affiliation has been included as a voluntary question in the census since (...)
  • 9 Lord Ashcroft Polls (2016), “How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why” https://lordashcrof (...)
  • 10 Kolpinskaya, Ekaterina et Fox, Stuart (2021), Religion and Euroscepticism in Brexit Britain, London (...)
  • 11 In this article, ‘Euroscepticism’ is understood in its broader sense as ‘a generalized hostility to (...)

2Taking for granted the fact that ethnic minorities voted massively to remain even obscures the differences between and within ethnic groups. For example, different attitudes towards Brexit were observed amongst Asians6: Indians, the majority of whom are Hindus or Sikhs, were the most supportive of Brexit after the White British group7, which was in contrast to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, the majority of whom are Muslims.8 Data have shown that Muslims were in fact the most supportive religious group, with 70 % voting to remain9, which appears to suggest that the religious paradigm was an important predictor of voting behaviour. This correlation has been supported in Ekaterina Kolpinskaya and Stuart Fox’s recent research.10 By focusing on non-religious, Protestant and Catholic people, the authors established a link between religion and Brexit, thus contributing to the increasing attention that is being paid to the influence of religion in the formation of Euroscepticism.11

3By focusing on Muslims, the objective of this article is to analyse the ways in which they have become increasingly polarised concerning the EU referendum and to identify the factors that have influenced their votes. This article argues that the religious paradigm and concern with discrimination have been important predictors of Muslim vote.

  • 12 Sobolewska, Maria et Ford, Robert (2020) Brexitland, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • 13 Dawson, Michael C. (1995), Behind the Mule. Race and class in African American politics, Princeton: (...)

4This article begins by presenting a typology of identity divisions that have resulted from social changes and on which this article is based. It will then focus on the main polarising lines for Muslims and will explain that their attitudes towards Europe are complex and ambivalent. Although they have expressed a low sense of European identity, they have also expressed significant political trust in the European institutions as gatekeepers against discrimination, which is an issue that has disproportionately affected Muslims. Accordingly, using Sobolewska and Ford’s typology on identity divides12, we argue that Brexit has shown that issue of discrimination has been an important predictor of Muslims’ votes, and defined Muslims as ‘necessity liberals’. However, a significant proportion of Muslim Leavers have increasingly engaged in issues pertaining to immigration, patriotism and the defence of social conservatism, which also aligns them with the White ‘identity conservatives’. This article argues that, beyond the divisions, Muslims’ attitudes towards Brexit were strongly correlated with the concept of ‘linked fate’13, with the religious paradigm being an important predictor of Muslims’ voting behaviour.

Brexit and the identity divide

  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 6.
  • 16 Sanders, David, Heath, Anthony et al. (2013), “The calculus of ethnic minority voting in Britain”, (...)

5The long-term migration that has been observed to be on-going since the 1950s and educational expansion have increasingly polarised Britain with regard to identity issues.14 Conflicts concerning identity have led to the emergence of three distinct groups that are characterised by opposing visions and attitudes towards demographic and social change. In their typology, Sobolewska and Ford first identified ‘the conviction liberals’, whose emergence was driven by university expansion. This group of university graduates value individual freedoms and have little attachment to socially conservative values. They defend a positive stance on migration and embrace diversity, which they consider to be a crucial part of their social and political identities. The second group, the ‘necessity liberals’, consists of ethnic minorities who, similar to the ‘conviction liberals’, have anti-racist and pro-diversity stances that are described as ‘a matter of personal values but of necessity’ resulting from hostility on the part of the majority group15. Experiences of discrimination and racism have indeed shaped their political attitudes and priorities, translating into a strong and lasting support for parties that have protected their rights; this has been manifested in the British case, with ethnic minorities’ indefectible loyalty to the Labour Party.16 Necessity liberals therefore align with conviction liberals in their shared support for equal opportunities and opposition to discrimination, but differ in their position regarding liberal stances concerning gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 6.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 6.

6The third category is composed of White school leavers, ‘identity conservatives’, who are characterised by a worldview that is based on ‘ethnocentrism’, which describes ‘a persistent tendency to see the social and political world as a battle between groups, pitting the familiar “us” against the unfamiliar “them”’.17 This group perceives demographic and increased diversity combined with social change to be a threat that they want to decelerate or reverse.18

  • 19 Ibid, p. 45.

7As Sobolewska and Ford argue, this is not a clear-cut issue, as ethnic minorities are also eager to express hostility towards out-groups. In addition, as ethnic minorities tend to identify more with religion than the white population does, some ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims, also share some common views and align with ‘identity conservatives’ concerning issues pertaining to sexual orientation, family values and gender roles.19

  • 20 Dawson, Michael C. (1995), op. cit.
  • 21 The word Umma has specifically been used to explain Muslims’ strong opposition to British foreign p (...)

8However, ethnic minorities are more inclined to align with conviction liberals because they are the common target of the hostility and resentment that are expressed by identity conservatives. This has been consolidated by the perception of a “linked fate”, which is the belief that their individual fate is linked to the broader status of their ethnic group and that the experience of one member is linked and influenced by what is happening to the wider group and how this group is treated.20 This attitude and belief in a common fate were observed among Muslims who have often perceived their interests inextricably related to the wide nation of Muslims called ‘Umma’.21 Such a belief was powerfully activated during the Brexit referendum which will be further discussed in our next section.

Muslims’ competing visions of European identity

9Muslims were found to be the religious group that was most supportive of EU membership, a fact that necessarily raises questions about their perceptions of and sense of belonging to Europe and the EU, as well as the extent to which the British national context, characterised by a significant increase in xenophobic and anti-Muslim attitudes,22 promoted competing senses of belonging.

  • 23 Sobolewska et Ford (2020), op. cit. p. 342.

10Over the past two decades, security issues and anxiety about Islamist terrorist threats have become increasingly central in public opinion, a sentiment that the Leave camp, and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular, was eager to exploit from the outset of the 2016 referendum campaign. Much of the UKIP rhetoric conflated the issue of extremism with that of immigration, thus translating anxieties into a ‘Muslim threat’. The radical right mobilised ethnocentric views by presenting Muslims as a ‘distinctive out-group, a threatening and dangerous “them” and the Brexit project as the defence of national “us”’.23

  • 24 James Ker-Lindsay (2018), “Turkey’s EU accession as a factor in the 2016 Brexit referendum”, Turkis (...)
  • 25 BBC (2016), “EU referendum: Row over Turkey’s membership bid escalates”, www.BBC.com
  • 26 Omar Khan et Debbie Weekes-Bernard (2015), “This is still about us: Why ethnic minorities see immig (...)

11For example, the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as speculations about Turkey’s integration into the EU, increased concerns about national security and the terrorist threat that would result from an influx of Muslims settling in the UK.24 These fears were exploited in a clip from UKIP broadcast on the BBC which warned that 15 million Turkish citizens could migrate to the UK.25 These elements have raised concerns amongst Muslims who identified the Brexit project as being firmly against Muslim immigration. For instance, the Runnymede Trust Report on Race and Immigration reported that issue of immigration, specifically amongst the Muslim participants, ‘made them feel particularly targeted’.26

  • 27 Ibid.

12One may legitimately wonder whether these elements have had a negative impact on Muslims’ sense of belonging in Britain, and have translated into a stronger European identity that would justify strong adhesion to EU membership. Of note, surveys which polled Muslims’ attitudes towards Britishness have underlined indefectible and long-lasting attachment to the British nation. Even in the year of the referendum, 93% of Muslims said that they belonged to Britain, with more than half feeling this sense of belonging ‘very strongly’.27

  • 28 Begum, Neema, op. cit.

13Nevertheless, ethnic minorities’ sense of belonging to Europe has received very little attention but their attitudes towards Europe, as expressed in many surveys, have suggested a weaker European identity among these groups than the British population.28 This therefore stands out as a paradox considering the strong support for the EU on the part of Muslims.

  • 29 Khan, Omar et Weekes-Bernard, Debbie (2015), “This is till about us: Why ethnic minorities see immi (...)

14Several reasons may account for this. The first is the perception that European identity is based on an exclusive white racial identity that excludes minorities even if they are citizens of a European country. A report published by the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading independent race and equality think tank, has in effect underlined ethnic minorities’ limited identification with a European ‘shared identity’. Instead, it argued that ethnic minorities tended to view Europe ‘in explicitly ethnic or racial terms, identifying “fortress Europe” [as] a way of keeping out non-white immigrants while allowing significant levels of European immigration’.29

  • 30 Parekh, Bhikhu (2008), “European Liberalism and ‘the Muslim Question’”, Leiden, Amsterdam Universit (...)
  • 31 Betz, Henri (2008), “‘Green Totalitarianism’”: Anti-Islamic nativism in Contemporary Radical Rights (...)

15Second, the increased hostility towards Muslims, fuelled by the rise of radical right parties as observed in most western European countries, has produced competing visions of Europe; one in which Europe espouses values of humanity characterised by a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion initiatives (detailed in the next section), and another that is racially conceptualised whereby Muslims, and Islam in particular, are identified as a threat to anti-Western values and are therefore incompatible with the pursuit of the European project. The ‘Muslim question’, as it came to be framed30, was additionally problematised in relation to Muslim social conservatism and increased religiosity, which have become fertile terrain for many European anti-immigrant parties.31

16With regard to these developments, we suggest that Muslims have been polarised not as much with regard to the identity with which they identify more strongly, but rather concerning which institutions (national or supranational) would provide the community with security and protection. Therefore, the Muslims’ vote to remain in the EU is resolutely pragmatic on at least two levels: it was a vote against the rising far-right groups at the national level, which they hoped would be weakened if Remainers won the referendum, but it was simultaneously a vote for EU institutions that are seen as gatekeepers preventing discrimination against Muslims.

Discrimination and Islamophobia32: Muslims’ ‘linked fate’

  • 32 Although the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ has attracted much criticism in France and has inspired (...)
  • 33 Stevenson, Jacqueline et Demack, Sean et al. (2017), “The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young (...)
  • 34 Frampton, Martyn, Goodhart, David et al. (2016),“Unsettled belonging: a survey of Britain’s Muslim (...)

17The disproportionate levels of religious discrimination experienced by Muslims in the UK has been covered extensively in official reports. This not only translates into an upsurge of the number of hate crimes against and harassment of Muslims, but also acts as an impediment to their social and economic advancement. A report published by the Social Mobility Commission does not anticipate better future prospects for young Muslims, emphasising that they face an ‘enormous social mobility challenge and are being held back from reaching their full potential at every stage of their lives’33 in the UK, and identifying ‘Islamophobia, discrimination and racism’ as the main reasons. The research that has been conducted on ethnic minorities’ perceptions of discrimination has revealed that, even when discrimination had not been personally experienced, it was still perceived as a reality that impacted on their lives. This is one of the conclusions drawn in a report published by the influential think-tank Policy Exchange which stressed that, while anti-Muslim bigotry and racism did not loom as large in their quantitative survey, ‘these problems were often relayed with reference to stories heard from friends, family, or via the media […]’ and that, while not denying the reality of anti-Muslim abuse and discrimination, these realities were ‘at least much perceived as experienced’.34

  • 35 European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (2006), “Muslims in the European Union. Discrim (...)

18The situations of Muslims in the UK and in Europe do not really differ. The EU made similar observations in several reports evidencing disproportionate experiences of discrimination and racism, such as in Muslims in the European Union, in which it urged EU members to re-examine integration policies and community cohesion.35

  • 36 Schlipphak, Bernd et Ali Isani, Mujtaba (2019), “Muslim attitudes towards the European Union”, Lond (...)
  • 37 The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) is an independent body of the EU, and was established to provid (...)
  • 38 RightsWatchUK, (2016) Preventing education? Human Rights and UK counter-terrorism in schools. https (...)
  • 39 Ni Aolain, Fionnuala (2021), “Human Rights impact of counter-terrorism and countering (violent) ext (...)

19Therefore, there are some good reasons for Muslims to seek protection by institutions. In this regard, data published by the European Social Survey have shown that European Muslims trust the European Parliament more than any other religious or non-religious group does.36 The EU’s strong engagement in and commitment to the fight against discrimination against Muslims over the past decade has probably been a factor of Muslims’ increasing political trust in the EU. In this regard, the EU has been inclined to develop frameworks to guarantee the protection of minorities from discrimination. Respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minority groups, has been defined as the cornerstone of the EU (Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union) with the establishment of the Fundamental Rights Agency37 to ensure compliance with human rights law. The FRA also provides a key tool for challenging the UK government regarding the application of policies. This has been evidenced via the introduction of the highly contested counter-terrorism Prevent policy that was introduced in 2003 with the aim of embarking on a war against terror by preventing the radicalisation of individuals and their engagement in terrorism. The implementation of this policy attracted significant criticism and concern because it targeted Muslims unduly and disproportionately. Indeed, the extension of the Prevent duty to public bodies as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 meant that public sector workers such as teachers were thus required to identify signs of student extremism and to refer students to the government’s deradicalisation programme called ‘Channel’. This resulted in many discriminatory and racist practices which have been covered in length by academics, charities and the civil society.38 For instance, successive UN special rapporteurs on human rights have judged it to be ‘unpredictable and potentially arbitrary’, thus having a ‘negative and discriminatory effect on Muslim communities’.39

20The Council has been given the mandate to combat discrimination based on race and religion (Article 10 on the Functioning of the European Union), while the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU was granted the same legal value as treaties, with Article 10 granting everyone freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Article 20 equality before the law, and Article 21 prohibiting discrimination. All member states are also obliged to respect the rights of minorities following their ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, while the European Court of Justice ensures the sound application of EU law. Finally, two important Equality Directives — the Employment Equality Directive and the Racial Equality Directives, both adopted in 2000 — have advanced the protection of minorities against discrimination on the basis of religion, beliefs or ethnicity in employment and education, and guaranteed social protection and access to public goods and services. In addition, specific action was taken to respond to the ‘Muslim case’ and the surge in anti-Muslim hate crimes that Muslims have experienced in most European countries. This includes the publication of major reports, such as The European Union Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme, and the implementation of major programmes to fight against all forms of discrimination. To accomplish this, the EU announced a programme of 338 million pounds to be spent between 2014 and 2020, including a programme that would monitor anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet.

21Therefore, for Muslim Remainers, leaving the EU would decrease their protection and security significantly. According to an argument expressed by Muslim Labour MEP and former Lord Mayor of Manchester, Afzal Kahn:

EU fundamental rights help ensure that Muslims have the freedom to practice their religion, while EU anti-discrimination measures are vital in tackling hate speech and hate crimes across Europe. By leaving the EU the UK would lose (…) the protections that the EU law gives to Muslims in Britain.

22However, the issue is not as clear cut as it may seem, as Muslim Leavers considered that leaving the EU could be a way out of a Europe that has seen anti-Muslim sentiment and far-right groups increasing in recent decades. Unofficial messages sent via WhatsApp from Muslim Leave campaigners circulated during the campaign to raise awareness about the future of Islam in the EU, pointing to anti-Muslim policies being rolled out in many European countries:

  • 40 Gani, Aisha (2016), “Here’s what Muslims who backed Brexit think now”, www.buzzfeed.co.uk

By voting to Leave you are saying: You do not support European hatred of Islam. Islam in Britain should be separate from Europe. You do not approve of Robert Fico, who openly hates Islam from being the European President. By voting Leave, we can help shape how Islam grows in the UK without interference from European Policy Makers, majority of who are all trying to ban Islam across Europe. The choice is yours.40

23In her research on ethnic minorities’ attitudes towards Europe, Begum highlighted the gendered Islamophobia characterised by the policing of female bodies and bans on the hijab, niqab and burkini, which have been tolerated in France by Europe and which have manifested in British Muslims’ opposition to EU membership:

  • 41 Quoted in Begum, Neema (2023), op. cit.

The way France were with the banning the hijab…a few of those countries…over here we’re mostly free to do what we want but over there there’s the banning of the hijab […] it’s really scary. You think ‘how do these [Muslims] live there?’ (Muslim woman who voted to leave)41

24Despite the far-right rhetoric concerning immigration and Muslims, Muslim Leavers considered Britain to be a much more tolerant place to live with regard to religious practice. The UK has a long history of promoting race relations. It has developed a strong legislative arsenal since 1965 and has introduced successive race relations policies to combat discrimination. This culminated in 2010 with the implementation of the Equality Act, which replaced all previous anti-discrimination legislation, and consolidated and strengthened the application of law in the workplace and in wider society. All these advances increased Muslim Leavers’ perceptions that British institutions were finally providing more effective protection of their religious rights, as evidenced by survey research that was published by Ipsos Mori, which found that 94 % of Muslims felt that they were able to practice their religion freely in Britain in 2015, which increased to 98 % in 2016; furthermore, two thirds of the respondents believed that the government was doing enough to protect people with different religions.42

Muslim Leavers and ethnocentric attitudes

Immigration

25Immigration was certainly one of, if not the most contentious issue for Britain during the years preceding the EU referendum.43 The anxiety that this issue created was such that the number of people who wanted immigration to be decreased was higher than was the number of people who thought that it had been negative. In 2015, 50% of the public mentioned immigration as being amongst the most important issues facing Britain, while 32% thought that immigration was the single most important issue facing the country.44 The question of border controls continued to raise thorny debates throughout the campaign and became increasingly central in political discourse and in public opinion. While it has been identified as a grievance of the White population, immigration has also been a dividing line for Muslims. A survey by the Policy Exchange conducted in the period prior to the Brexit referendum revealed that immigration ranked third amongst the most important issues facing Britain for Muslims, after the NHS and unemployment.45 This does not mean that concerns about immigration were translated into a systematic vote for Brexit, but we can fairly correlate this finding with the significant proportion of Muslims who voted to leave. Several reasons can explain this fact. The first reason is linked to the immigration framework that resulted from EU membership itself, which introduced significant changes into the British immigration system by allowing the free movement of EU citizens, as well as giving them the right to live and work without requiring permission, while requiring non-EU citizens to comply with the restrictive, point-based immigration system.46 In practice, this meant that non-EU migrants needed to apply for a work visa and to meet the skills-based selection criteria. Prioritising EU migrants resulted in the EU being the main source of work migration, which consequently led to a significant reduction in the number of visas that were allocated to newcomers from previous British colonies. The application of two different immigration regimes and caps on family reunions were therefore perceived as being unfair and discriminatory by ethnic minorities. The research published by the Runnymede Trust found that their opposition to EU immigration was based on their perceived right to become British, which consequently allowed them to oppose easy access to settlement:

  • 47 Khan, Omar et Weekes-Bernard, Debbie (2015), op. cit., p. 8.

Long-settled migrants often feel that they have had a difficult time in Britain, or at least following their initial arrival; they may then consider that newer migrants have better or easier experiences, particularly in terms of access to benefits or navigating the system more successfully. Many long-term settled, overseas-born people will consider themselves to be British, and not migrants. In some sense, this allows them to effectively endorse what they see as the British anti-immigrant norm.47

  • 48 Parveen, Nazia (2016) “Why do some ethnic minority voters want to leave the EU? The Guardian.

26These are the types of narratives that were expressed by Muslims and reported in different newspapers during the campaign. For example, an Anglo-Pakistani argued in analogous terms: ‘We have worked so hard to earn the right to live here and we contribute to the communities. What we don’t want is more people coming in who won’t bring anything positive and will just take’.48 This fault line was exploited extensively by Muslim Leavers during the campaign. A leaflet handed out by the network Muslim for Britain asked:

  • 49 Pickard, Jim (2016), “Vote leave woos British Asians with migration leaflets”, The Financial Times. (...)

Why is it harder for a qualified doctor or software engineer from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or the Middle East to come to Britain than it is for an unskilled worker from Poland or Romania?49

  • 50 Ibid., p. 3.

27The second reason concerned how they perceived the benefits of immigration. In this regard, the Runnymede Trust underlined ambivalent attitudes amongst ethnic minorities, including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, as ‘they appear less likely to take advantage of free movement; i.e. very few move about for work’.50 Finally, for Muslim Leavers, leaving the EU would not only mean a rebalancing of Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth, but Britain would also take back control over its borders and sovereignty. Data published about Muslims’ attitudes towards British identity revealed their strong attachment to a British identity. The sentiment of patriotism as not being the preserve of White British people was also an important argument that shaped the Muslim for Britain campaign. Naheed Majeed, a Conservative Party activist and board member of this group, argued that Muslim Leavers felt the same nostalgia as White Christians, thus suggesting that the EU had diminished Britain rather than strengthening it:

  • 51 Majeed, Naheed (2016), “Why British Muslims should vote to leave the EU”, The Telegraph. https://ww (...)

What we have in common is the shared goal of dispelling myths surrounding an exit from the EU and a wish to return sovereign power back to our great nation.51

  • 52 Labour In for Britain (2016) “There is no doubt: ethnic minority Britons benefit from Britain’s EU (...)

28Faced with the confusion about the benefits of European integration and losing ground on this issue, 20 Labour MPs with ethnic minority backgrounds published an open letter to clarify the benefits of EU membership for ethnic minorities.52 They emphasised the possibility of travelling freely to other EU countries without requiring a passport or a visa, and highlighted the benefits of this for trade and employment. The economic benefits of EU membership and immigration were another important dividing line in the Brexit campaign. This is the focus of our last section.

Muslims and economic prospects

  • 53 Ford, Robert et Goodwin, Matthew, (2015), op.cit.
  • 54 ons.gov.uk accessed in August 2023
  • 55 The religious affiliation is a voluntary question that was included in the Census for the first tim (...)
  • 56 Parveen, Nazia, op. cit.
  • 57 McCann, Philip et Ortega-Argiles, Raquel (2021), “The UK ‘geography of discontent’: narratives, Bre (...)
  • 58 Martin, Nicole S., Sobolewska, Maria et al. “Left out of the left behind? Ethnic minority support f (...)
  • 59 Mayor of London, (2018), “Inclusive London. The Mayor’s strategy for equality, diversity and inclus (...)

29Another well-established interpretation of Brexit has been the ‘revolt of the White working class’53 in the context of a deteriorating economic situation, which eventually amplified Eurosceptic sentiments. However, this issue cut across ethnic lines, and Muslims were particularly concerned about unemployment and economy despite there being a weaker correlation between socio-economic backgrounds and their votes being observed amongst this population. For example, official data have shown that Muslims in Britain are a far more economically and socially disadvantaged group compared to the majority population.54 The last census shed light on the high level of deprivation of Muslims in terms of employment, housing and education. For instance, Muslims accounted for the lowest percentage of employed people aged 16 to 64 at 51.4% compared to 70.9% for the overall population, while 32.7% of people who identified as Muslim in the last census55 lived in overcrowded homes compared to 8.4% of the overall population, and 25.3% of Muslims had no qualifications in comparison to 18.2% of the overall population. Muslims who voted to leave were particularly concerned about the exacerbated competition in the job market resulting from the arrival of low-skilled and low-paid migrants from the EU.56 In this regard, the referendum’s results in specific areas of the north where high proportions of Muslims live were telling. The city of Birmingham, for example, where a third of the population is Muslim (census 2021), voted to leave by 50.4%. With populations consisting of 32.9 % and 30.5% of Muslims, Luton and Bradford backed Brexit with a clear ‘no’ to European membership (56.5% and 54.2%, respectively), which was significantly higher than the national average (52%). This trend could be seen as being in opposition to Muslims’ voting behaviour as observed in some boroughs of London with similarly high levels of Muslim concentrations. In Tower Hamlets and Newham, where the Muslim population represents 39.9% and 34.8% (out of 310,300 and 360,400 inhabitants, respectively), the vote to remain had strong support (67.4 % and 52.8 %). Socio-economic disparities between the north and the south have been a major explanation for this geographic divide, which has been conceptualised as the ‘geography of discontent’ and posits the existence of a correspondence between the geography of the voting patterns for Brexit and the economic geography of the UK’s productivity patterns.57 Thus, in some traditional left-leaning towns and cities in the north, such as Luton, the support for leaving echoed the findings of Martin et al., who argued that minority groups’ partisanship had little impact on their intention to vote to leave, and that Brexit showed that a strongly negative partisanship towards the Conservatives, as observed amongst minorities, was less relevant.58 But the economic factor alone does not explain these variations. As low economic achievement characterises the Muslim population in general, the strong Muslim vote to remain observed in London boroughs such as Tower Hamlets could also be correlated with positive images of diversity and inclusiveness that are emblematic of the city.59 In addition, one may fairly mention the influence of Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan who actively campaigned for the Remain camp.

  • 60 Pickard, Jim,“Vote leave woos British Asians with migration leaflets”, op. cit.
  • 61 Majeed, Naheed, (2016), “Why British Muslims should vote to leave the EU”, op. cit.
  • 62 He organised many conferences on Islam and the free market to demonstrate that the EU was opposed t (...)
  • 63 Ibid.

30Economic concern was also expressed by a small group of conservative-leaning Muslims consisting of graduates, successful entrepreneurs and businessmen. Some of them denounced the immigration preference system, which meant that many business owners found it difficult to recruit from abroad, thus putting their businesses at risk of failure,60 while others emphasised that this system ‘[restricted] Britain’s economic potential and its ability to partner with the Commonwealth Nations to achieve mutual growth’.61 Motivations to leave the EU were also expressed based on the conflict between EU membership and the principles of economic liberalism which are the cornerstone of Islamic tradition.62 For example, leavers denounced the EU’s grip on the British economy, which is contrary to the Islamic free-market principle. This theory was spread widely by the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan using the example of Prophet Muhammed, who spent much of his time as a trader and entrepreneur and established a tax-free market in Medina.63

31Other prominent conservative MPs of Muslim origin, such as Nusrat Ghani, also played an active role in disseminating the argument. For example, in a video broadcast on the BBC, Nusrat Ghani explained that Brexit would liberate the economy, end the regulatory sovereignty imposed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and, most importantly, stop the ‘lousy deal for £350 million pounds a week’.64

  • 65 Versi, Miqdaad (2016), “For British Muslims, there’s only one choice on Europe: vote remain”, 29 Ma (...)
  • 66 Labour In for Britain, op. cit.

32The Remain side was not silent on this issue either and their strategy consisted mainly in explaining that Muslims would be the ‘losers’ if Brexit was voted. Although the Muslim Council of Britain — the largest Muslim umbrella organisation — remained neutral during the campaign, prominent figures, including Miqdaad Versi, director of media monitoring, pointed out the economic benefits of EU membership for Muslim Umma.65 The open letter published by the 20 ethnic minority Labour MPs also warned that leaving the EU would inextricably lead to an ‘economic shock’ that would mainly hit young ethnic minorities who were already disproportionately unemployed.66

Conclusion

33The Brexit vote revealed the deep fragmentations and divisions concerning identity politics in British society. While this issue has mainly been approached as a white working class issue, the Muslim population also helped shape the vote and was polarised regarding the benefits of remaining in the EU. Important divisions and ambivalent attitudes were observed in the opposing conviction liberals’ and identity conservatives’ ethnocentric views. Muslim Remainers expressed strong support for Europe, as racial and racist rhetoric was associated with the Leave camp. Increasing anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain and in most Western societies has crystallised the ‘linked fate’, that is to say the belief that European membership would guarantee better protection against discrimination and Islamophobia, provide better opportunities and thus enhance the ‘Muslim cause’.

34However, Muslim Leavers identified with concerns that had generally been attributed to the White working class, such as concerns about Eastern European immigration and the burden it would place on community cohesion and competition in the job market. They were resentful about the White preference established by the immigration system and which they considered to have undermined Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth.

35It has now been seven years since the Brexit vote, and the impacts of this major political upheaval on Muslims are yet to be measured. This would certainly provide interesting insights into how Brexit would reshape Muslims’ political identities and partisanship and whether a generational and class divides would result from this.

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Bibliographie

BBC (2016), “EU referendum: Row over Turkey’s membership bid escalates”, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36353013

Betz, Henri (2008), “‘Green Totalitarianism’”: Anti-Islamic nativism in Contemporary Radical Rights Populism in Western Europe”, in C. Liang (ed.), Europe for the Europeans: The Foreign and Security Policy of the Populist Radical Right, Abingdon, Routledge.

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Notes

1 Salam, Hamza Azhar (2020), 800,000 Muslims voted for Brexit, say Leave leaders”, TheNews, 6 February, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/610230-800-000-muslims-voted-for-brexit-say-leave-leaders

2 Ford, Robert et Goodwin, Matthew (2015), Revolt on the Right: Explaining support for the Radical Right in Britain, London, Routledge.

3 Martin, Nicole S., Sobolewska, Maria et al. (2019) “Left out of the left behind? Ethnic minority support for Brexit”, Social Science Research Network, https://research.manchester.ac.uk/en/publications/left-out-of-the-left-behind-ethnic-minority-support-for-brexit

4 The use of the acronym BAME in reference to Black Asian Minority Ethnic groups has garnered much criticism. This led the government to stop using it following the recommendation of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ Inclusive Britain, published in 2022. It was explained that the acronym has often been used as a proxy for non-White, thus having a divisive connotation.

5 Nicole S. Martin and Khan, “Ethnic Minorities at the 2017 British General Election”, London: Runnymede Trust, 2019.

6 This category includes Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chinese and other Asians (census 2021).

7 Begum, Neema (2018), “Minority ethnic attitudes and the 2016 EU referendum” in Brexit and Public Opinion, The UK in a changing Europe, https://ukandeu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Public-Opinion.pdf

8 The question of religious affiliation has been included as a voluntary question in the census since 2001. Data show an increase in British Muslims’ diversity. While Asian Muslims form the majority of British Muslims at 67.6%, British Muslims also include ‘other ethnicities’ such as Arabs and other ethnic groups (10,7%), followed by Black Muslims (10,1 %) and White Muslims (7,8%). The Muslim Asian population is subdivided as follows: 38 % are Pakistanis, 14.9% are Bangladeshis and 7.3% are Indians. Being a ‘Muslim’ can have different meanings and realities. For the purposes of this article, we use it in its broader sense; that is anyone who identifies with the Islamic religion. It should also be noted that being a Pakistani person does not necessarily imply identification with Islam. Although the vast majority of Pakistani and Bangladeshi people describe themselves as Muslims, a small proportion identifies with other religions or atheism.

9 Lord Ashcroft Polls (2016), “How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why” https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/, accessed in August 2023.

10 Kolpinskaya, Ekaterina et Fox, Stuart (2021), Religion and Euroscepticism in Brexit Britain, London, Routledge.

11 In this article, ‘Euroscepticism’ is understood in its broader sense as ‘a generalized hostility to the European Union, the principle of European integration, or some specific element of it, that manifests itself in either dissatisfaction with EC/EU membership or support for leaving the organization’, Kolpinskaya et Fox, ibid., p. 17.

12 Sobolewska, Maria et Ford, Robert (2020) Brexitland, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

13 Dawson, Michael C. (1995), Behind the Mule. Race and class in African American politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., p. 6.

16 Sanders, David, Heath, Anthony et al. (2013), “The calculus of ethnic minority voting in Britain”, Political Studies, vol. 62, n°2, pp. 230-251.

17 Ibid., p. 6.

18 Ibid., p. 6.

19 Ibid, p. 45.

20 Dawson, Michael C. (1995), op. cit.

21 The word Umma has specifically been used to explain Muslims’ strong opposition to British foreign policy in Iraq. See, for instance, Archer, Toby (2009), “Welcome to the Umma: The British State and its Muslim citizens since 9/11”, Cooperation and Conflict, vol.44, n°3, pp. 329-347.

22 Tellmama Report (2023), “A decade of anti-Muslim hate”, https://tellmamauk.org/a-decade-of-anti-muslim-hate/

23 Sobolewska et Ford (2020), op. cit. p. 342.

24 James Ker-Lindsay (2018), “Turkey’s EU accession as a factor in the 2016 Brexit referendum”, Turkish Studies, vol. 19, n°1, pp. 1-22.

25 BBC (2016), “EU referendum: Row over Turkey’s membership bid escalates”, www.BBC.com

26 Omar Khan et Debbie Weekes-Bernard (2015), “This is still about us: Why ethnic minorities see immigration differently”, Runnymede Report on Race and Immigration, p. 20.

27 Ibid.

28 Begum, Neema, op. cit.

29 Khan, Omar et Weekes-Bernard, Debbie (2015), “This is till about us: Why ethnic minorities see immigration differently”, Runnymede Report on Race and Immigration, 2015, p. 3. https://www.runnymedetrust.org/publications/this-is-still-about-us-why-ethnic-minorities-see-immigration-differently

30 Parekh, Bhikhu (2008), “European Liberalism and ‘the Muslim Question’”, Leiden, Amsterdam University Press, , retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/1887/12641

31 Betz, Henri (2008), “‘Green Totalitarianism’”: Anti-Islamic nativism in Contemporary Radical Rights Populism in Western Europe”, in C. Liang (ed.), Europe for the Europeans: The Foreign and Security Policy of the Radical Right, Abingdon, Routledge, pp. 33-54.

32 Although the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ has attracted much criticism in France and has inspired heated and passionate debates, Britain and the EU have used the word in many contexts to refer to the discrimination and harassment experienced by Muslims. See, for instance, “Combating anti-Muslim hatred in the EU” https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2018/630305/EPRS_ATA(2018)630305_EN.pdf

33 Stevenson, Jacqueline et Demack, Sean et al. (2017), “The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young Muslims”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/642220/Young_Muslims_SMC.pdf (accessed in August 2023)

34 Frampton, Martyn, Goodhart, David et al. (2016),“Unsettled belonging: a survey of Britain’s Muslim communities”, Policy Exchange, p. 8, https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/PEXJ5037_Muslim_Communities_FINAL.pdf

35 European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (2006), “Muslims in the European Union. Discrimination and Islamophobia”, p. 3. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/49997affd.pdf

36 Schlipphak, Bernd et Ali Isani, Mujtaba (2019), “Muslim attitudes towards the European Union”, London, Routledge.

37 The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) is an independent body of the EU, and was established to provide assistance and expertise on fundamental rights matters to the EU and its member states when implementing community law. The aim is to fully support fundamental rights when they take measures or formulate courses of action.

38 RightsWatchUK, (2016) Preventing education? Human Rights and UK counter-terrorism in schools. https://www.rightsandsecurity.org/ Accessed in August 2023.

39 Ni Aolain, Fionnuala (2021), “Human Rights impact of counter-terrorism and countering (violent) extremism policies and practices on the rights of women, girls and the family”, Human Rights Council, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3901287?ln=es. Last accessed in August 2023.

40 Gani, Aisha (2016), “Here’s what Muslims who backed Brexit think now”, www.buzzfeed.co.uk

41 Quoted in Begum, Neema (2023), op. cit.

42 Ipos Mori (2018), “A review of survey research on Muslims in Britain” https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/publication/documents/2018-03/a-review-of-survey-research-on-muslims-in-great-britain-ipsos_0.pdf (accessed in August 2023).

43 Economist/Ipsos Issues Index (May 2016), https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/economist-ipsos-may-2016-issues-index

44 The Economist/ Ipsos Issues index (2015), https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/economistipsos-august-2015-issues-index (Last accessed in August 2023).

45 Frampton, Martyn, Goodhart, David et al. “Unsettled belonging: a survey of Britain’s Muslim communities”, op. cit.

46 The Points-Based System was adopted completely in 2010 and was divided into five separate tiers. To be eligible for a visa, the applicant was required to score the necessary points-based threshold. A work visa was granted on the basis of many criteria including skills and ability, experience and age.

47 Khan, Omar et Weekes-Bernard, Debbie (2015), op. cit., p. 8.

48 Parveen, Nazia (2016) “Why do some ethnic minority voters want to leave the EU? The Guardian.

49 Pickard, Jim (2016), “Vote leave woos British Asians with migration leaflets”, The Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/94adcefa-1dd5-11e6-a7bc-ee846770ec15

50 Ibid., p. 3.

51 Majeed, Naheed (2016), “Why British Muslims should vote to leave the EU”, The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/12150386/Why-British-Muslims-should-vote-to-leave-the-EU.html

52 Labour In for Britain (2016) “There is no doubt: ethnic minority Britons benefit from Britain’s EU membership”, open letter by 20 BME Labour MPs, http://www.rushanaraali.org/there-is-no-doubt-ethnic-minority-britons-benefit-from-britains-eu-membership/

53 Ford, Robert et Goodwin, Matthew, (2015), op.cit.

54 ons.gov.uk accessed in August 2023

55 The religious affiliation is a voluntary question that was included in the Census for the first time in 2001.

56 Parveen, Nazia, op. cit.

57 McCann, Philip et Ortega-Argiles, Raquel (2021), “The UK ‘geography of discontent’: narratives, Brexit and inter-regional ‘levelling up’”, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, vol. 14, n°13, pp. 545-564. https://doi.org/10.1093/cjres/rsab017

58 Martin, Nicole S., Sobolewska, Maria et al. “Left out of the left behind? Ethnic minority support for Brexit”, op. cit.

59 Mayor of London, (2018), “Inclusive London. The Mayor’s strategy for equality, diversity and inclusion”, https://www.london.gov.uk/programmes-strategies/communities-and-social-justice/mayors-strategy-equality-diversity-and-inclusion

60 Pickard, Jim,“Vote leave woos British Asians with migration leaflets”, op. cit.

61 Majeed, Naheed, (2016), “Why British Muslims should vote to leave the EU”, op. cit.

62 He organised many conferences on Islam and the free market to demonstrate that the EU was opposed to Islam’s economic principles. See, for instance, his blog “Islam has its own indigenous free-market tradition” https://conservativehome.com/2017/12/21/daniel-hannan-islam-has-its-own-indigenous-free-market-tradition/ accessed in August 2023.

63 Ibid.

64 EU referendum: Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani makes the case for Leave, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-36389960 accessed in August 2023.

65 Versi, Miqdaad (2016), “For British Muslims, there’s only one choice on Europe: vote remain”, 29 March 2016, The Guardian,

66 Labour In for Britain, op. cit.

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Donia Touihri-Mebarek, « Divided but linked by faith: Brexit and UK Muslims’ attitudes towards Europe »Observatoire de la société britannique, 30 | 2023, 139-156.

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Donia Touihri-Mebarek, « Divided but linked by faith: Brexit and UK Muslims’ attitudes towards Europe »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 30 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/6092 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.6092

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Donia Touihri-Mebarek

Maître de conférences en civilisation britannique à l’Université Rennes 2

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