Religion, the ‘final frontier of prejudice’ in Britain – and lockdown makes it worse, study finds

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By Tim Wyatt

Religion is the “final frontier of prejudice” in Britain, and working from home during the pandemic is making it even harder to break it down, a report reveals.

The Woolf Institute’s How We Get Along: the Diversity Study for England and Wales 2020 surveyed 11,701 adults on their feelings towards ethnic, national and religious difference.

Of those, 58 per cent of respondents thought ethnic diversity was “good for Britain” and 46 per cent agreed migrants had a positive impact.

By contrast, only 41 per cent of people thought religious diversity a boon to British society and 22 per cent disagreed outright.

Ed Kessler, director of the Woolf Institute, a think tank, said the findings suggested religion, not race or immigration, was the “final frontier of prejudice”.

“These are personal attitudes, so we’re not talking about entrenched institutional racism, we’re talking about personal attitudes to one another,” he told a Religion Media Centre online briefing on Monday to launch the research.

For instance, when questioned further 74 per cent of those surveyed would be happy to see a close family member marry a black person, but this plummeted to just 44 per cent content with a relative marrying a Muslim.

Islam seemed to be the least welcomed of all religious groups, with both the non-religious and those of other religions all least likely to approve of a family member marrying a Muslim compared with other faiths.

“At the same time they were the group most resistant to their relatives marrying non-Muslims,” Dr Kessler added.

This prejudice was not simply a product of using Islam as a proxy for race, because 70 per cent of respondents would be happy to see a relation marrying an Asian person, the data reveals.

Better news for advocates for diversity came elsewhere in the report, however, in a question that found three-quarters of people worked with someone from a different ethnicity, nationality or religion.

“Friendships break down prejudice,” Dr Kessler argued, and workplaces were the primary place these cross-cultural friendships developed. “Workplaces are places not just of work but of meeting, encounter and friendships.”

But the coronavirus pandemic was throwing a spanner in the works by forcing millions of Britons to work from home, cutting them off from their more diverse offices, shops and factories.

“As people are forced to work from home during Covid, there is a risk that they go back into isolated silos. Creating new opportunities for friendships should be a key ingredient of public policy,” he said.

This could look like architects and companies collaborating to redesign office spaces to include more opportunities for encounters and conversations in pleasant spaces such as kitchens and meeting rooms, he suggested.

Others who joined the Zoom briefing echoed the institute’s findings. Gemma McCall, whose organisation Culture Shift tries to help firms improve their diversity said it was vital for companies not just to focus on hiring more staff from different backgrounds, but also making the business a “welcoming environment for them to flourish in”.

Dr Kessler agreed, noting that the survey had found that one in five British Asians, for instance, had no colleagues who shared their ethnicity. Practically speaking, this could look like anything from creating a multifaith chapel area, or even having more leeway for staff who are fasting during Ramadan.

“That’s not about being politically correct but being sensitive to the needs of the people who work there,” he argued. “Being more familiar with your colleagues, their needs, identity and background, will make a happier place.”

This idea might soon be picked up more officially. Dave Perfect, who leads the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s work on religion and belief, asked if guidance that his team had produced for workplaces in 2016 (which covered issues such as dress codes and time off work for religious festivals) needed to be updated, given the sweeping changes the pandemic had wrought on working life.

“Yes there has been a fundamental shift,” Dr Kessler responded. “I think the EHRC would do well to look at that.”

Iftikhar Awan, a consultant and chairman of trustees for Muslim Aid, suggested part of the problem was a traditional British reluctance to “wear our faith on our sleeves”. “We as people of faith need to be a bit more open about our faith,” he said.

This idea found some backing in the research, Dr Kessler responded, as it seemed the more encounters people had with those from differing backgrounds, the quicker their prejudices were broken down.

Julie Siddiqi, a Muslim activist and campaigner, said it was heartbreaking to hear how entrenched prejudice against Muslims remained in England and Wales and said much of this was probably driven by negative portrayals of Islam in the media and by politicians.

However, given that the report also found Muslims were the group least comfortable with family members marrying out of the community, “we do need to reflect on findings like these and not just be defensive and blame others”, she said.

A final intriguing line from the report was picked up by Azim Ahmed, a researcher into British Islam at Cardiff University. He noted that most people agreed diversity was good for Britain, and yet at the same time, most people also said the pace of change was too fast.

Could this be explained in terms of Nimbys (Not in My Back Yard), he asked. Perhaps the overarching conclusion by the average Briton was: “Diversity is good, but not here.”


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