British Muslims are 'disenfranchised at every level’
The deeply entrenched challenges facing British Muslims have been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis
by: Nadeine Asbali
26 Apr 2023
British Muslims have historically faced higher levels of poverty. Image: Flickr/ Peter McConnochie
Life in today’s Britain feels like a work of crass dystopian fiction: from everyday items like butter and cheese becoming luxuries to baby formula and washing detergent under lock and key on supermarket shelves.
With levels of homelessness surging, unemployment figures edging higher and food prices soaring at crippling rates, things only look set to get worse. But as with so much else in our divided nation, not everyone is equal in the cost of living crisis.
Half of all British Muslims live in poverty compared to only 18 per cent of the general population. Research by the Muslim Census suggests 65 per cent of Muslims in Britain have taken on debt in order to cover household bills in the last year. But why are things so disproportionately crippling for Muslim communities up and down the country?
Race and class divisions run deep in Britain. If you are a person of colour or if you live in an urban area then you are likely to experience the cost of living crisis more acutely than wealthier (and whiter) counterparts. And you are less likely to be sheltered by high wages, home ownership or significant savings than other groups.
People also have to grapple with issues like poor health, insecure employment, precarious housing, or an uncertain immigration status. This only exacerbates the already brutal impact of poverty for communities.
The devastating reality for British Muslim communities is they often exist at the crossroads of many of these factors – making them disproportionately affected by poverty and uniquely disenfranchised from accessing help.
Pakistani and Bangladeshi people make up the bulk of the Muslim population in the UK. And the evidence shows they are suffering. Poverty rates for Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are higher than for other ethnic group in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
More than half (53 per cent) of Bangladeshi people are living in poverty, and just under half (48 per cent) of Pakistanis are living in poverty in the UK.
According to the Muslim Census, almost one in three Muslims living in the UK have missed a meal in order to afford household bills in the last year. And a quarter reported that they miss meals every single month to stay afloat.
Those with children or caring responsibilities are among the hardest hit. “Life just feels impossible at the moment, like there’s no help in sight,” explains Maryam, a single mother of three teenagers living in east London. She’s a teacher, meaning she has experienced a real-terms pay cut in her wages over the last few years while covering the costs of rising rent, soaring household bills and growing children.
As we speak, I can hear her frying samosas ready for iftar in the background. “Ramadan has been especially hard,” she continues. “It’s been the Easter holidays, which means that after we open our fast at sunset, my kids stay up all night eating. They’re teenagers – they get hungry.”
For Maryam to make sure her children have enough to eat, she has been going without food herself. “Most days this Ramadan I’ve had nothing to eat at sehri (dawn meal) other than some water. I’ve told my kids it’s because I’m on a diet. But if I skip sehri, it means I can give them a better meal at iftar time.”
A few months ago, Maryam started to do what one in five British Muslims do: rely on a food bank. Despite there being plenty nearby, she travels to another part of London to avoid being recognised.
“The thing about being a teacher is that everyone in my local area knows me – it’s either my colleagues or my children’s friends or my students,” she says.
“I’m embarrassed for people to see me needing help – I studied hard to become a teacher and I don’t like people thinking that because I’m a single mum now I need help. But the truth is, I do. If I’m struggling, I don’t know how people out of work manage to survive at all.”
Humera Ali is a Refugee and Migrant Support Lead for a charity in Newham, among the most impoverished boroughs in London. She works primarily with asylum seekers, many of whom are from Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan.
Ali has noticed a marked increase in demand for services such as food banks, warm banks, and hot meals to subsidise what she refers to as “culturally insensitive” and “inadequate” food provided by the Home Office in the hotels housing refugees and asylum seekers.
“Families are coming to us whose children are getting sick and becoming underweight because of the lack of food they have access to. With no recourse to public funds, they have no choice but to rely on us for help.” she explains.
Ramadan might be a time where Muslims in poverty feel it most, as memories of past Ramadans filled with feasts and gatherings seem increasingly distant. This Ramadan, the National Zakat Foundation has reported that a Muslim in Britain has requested to receive zakat (charity) every 12 minutes. A year ago, it was every 30 minutes.
Zakat is a mandatory 2.5 per cent charitable contribution or tax placed upon Muslims who can afford it. It is a core pillar of Islam, a way to redistribute wealth to those who need it and is believed to purify the property of those who give it. While wealthier Muslims are prescribed to give zakat, those who are in need are eligible to apply for it from charities such as the National Zakat Foundation.
CEO of National Zakat Foundation, Dr Sohail Hanif, describes how there has been an unprecedented surge in zakat applications from Muslims experiencing poverty: “Since October of 2021, we have seen a year-on-year doubling of people coming to us for help. In fact, by the end of March this year we had already hit last year’s total number of zakat applicants. If you extrapolate that, we could be looking at a 400 per cent increase by the end of 2023.”
It is impossible to discuss the exponential increase in Muslims experiencing poverty without looking at the broader political backdrop. After all, it is the economic and social policies of those in power that wreak havoc on the most vulnerable communities.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the government has cut the value of working age benefits in seven out of the last 10 years and the one-off cost of living payments offered as a solution barely touch the sides of the astronomical cost of living.
At the same time, the government’s repeated refusal to provide public sector workers with pay rises in line with inflation means that even those in stable jobs are unable to make ends meet.
Dr Hanif explains how the National Zakat Foundation has noticed a significant spike in British citizens and those in full-time employment applying for support, “Most of our applications used to come from groups such as asylum seekers but now 70 per cent of applicants are British citizens. These are people who were born here, who live and work here. We are noticing a real problem of in-work poverty. forcing people to come to us for help.”
Over 90 charities, including The National Zakat Foundation, are now calling on the government to better support those facing poverty as research finds that nine out of 10 low-income households on Universal Credit are going without essentials.
As Dr Hanif puts it, “there is simply not enough being done by the government to offset the cost of living and to make things better for people”.
The alarming reality, particularly for British Muslims who exist at the knife edge of poverty, is that with no substantial help from politicians on the horizon, it’s difficult to see how even more people won’t be plunged into destitution in the coming months. And how long can charities and communities plug the gaping chasm caused by a government that doesn’t seem to care?
Meanwhile, the UK continues its campaign to be as hostile to Muslims politically and socially as it is economically. These factors go hand in hand to disenfranchise British Muslims at every level. If not knowing where your next meal is coming from or relying on charity to pay your bills isn’t traumatising enough, then being bombarded by structural racism on top of that can be utterly debilitating.
This government’s most divisive policies repeatedly target Muslims more than other groups – whether that’s plans to deport (disproportionately Muslim) migrants to Rwanda or the racial profiling of child sexual abusers as “Pakistani males” by the Home Secretary, despite all the data suggesting otherwise. This peddling of islamophobia by politicians has real life implications for Muslims on a daily basis.
Last year, it was revealed that just under half of all hate crimes in the UK targeted Muslims and a recent study confirmed what British Muslims already anecdotally knew: that they face a “Muslim penalty” in the jobs market forming an impenetrable barrier to social mobility – a penalty so pervasive that even those simply “perceived” to be Muslim experience it too.
The facts speak for themselves. To be a British Muslim in this hierarchical, hostile nation means to be disenfranchised at every level: to face an abundance of hardship and a dearth of support from those in power. For some, it means to be consistently told to strive for social mobility and integration but to face insurmountable obstacles once you get there.
For others, it means to risk your life for the promise of a better future, only to experience purposefully manufactured destitution once you get here. And for many, it means to work all day to feed your kids and give back to your community, only to turn on the TV and see yourself racially profiled by those in the highest office.
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