The European Year of Equal Opportunities for All 2007 and its relevance to religious diversity in Britain

Muslim girl in London underground


by Sarah Isal

Background to the European Year

Since its inception in 1957, the European Union has always played an important role in promoting equality and non-discrimination within its member states. Following on from the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003, it has assigned 2007 to be the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, which in turn will be followed by the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue in 2008.

2007 also marks the tenth anniversary of the European Year Against Racism 1997, which was instrumental in getting the EU to draft legislation that ensured that individuals living in Europe were protected from discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin, age, disability, sexual orientation and last but not least, religion and belief. This has meant that a number of European countries had to adopt new domestic legislation that outlawed religious discrimination for the first time. The UK was such in a position, having never made religious discrimination illegal until then.

Activities during 2007 will seek to raise awareness of the EU’s existing – and substantial – equality and anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, sexual orientation and gender, as well as stimulating debate and exchanges of good practice. The four core objectives of the Year are: Rights, Representation, Recognition and Respect. The question is what do these four keywords mean in relation to religious diversity in Britain today? Before trying to answer this question, it is useful to examine the place of religion in British society.

Religion in Britain: Statistics on Britain and religion

For the first time, the census recorded data on religion in 2001. Over four million people (nearly 8%) failed to fill out the voluntary question, and 15% stated they had ‘no religion’ .  Nearly 72% of Britons reported their religion as ‘Christian’ meaning that roughly 5% follow other religious traditions.

Muslims make up just over half of non-Christian Britons, with Hinduism the second largest non-Christian religion at 18%. Sikhs and Jews are the next largest communities with Buddhism being the only other religion named in the census question.

Muslim communities still the most disadvantaged

Of all religious groups in Britain, the Muslim community appears to be living in the most precarious conditions, with Muslims more likely to have reported ill-health and more likely to live in social housing. When one looks at employment rates by religion, Muslims have the lowest employment rate at 48.3%, compared to an average of 66.5%. Similarly, statistics  show that 14.6% of Muslims are unemployed and 51.7% are economically inactive (compared to 5% and 33.5% respectively for the population as a whole).1

In education, one in three Muslims (33%) and one in five Sikhs (20%) of working age in Britain has no qualifications – the highest proportion for any religious group. Only 15% of Hindus, 14% of people with no religion and 7% of Jews have no qualifications.

This shows a continuing disparity in the life experiences of Muslim communities in particular, compared with the rest of the British population which needs to be acknowledged and addressed with urgency.

Two recent debates on religion in Britain

Faith-based schools
There is no official separation of church and state in Britain as there is in other parts of Europe such as France, for instance. This is exemplified best by recent debates around faith schools. The decision by government to encourage the participation of faith schools and religious organisations in the state-maintained sector, has led to fierce debates in the media and within communities on the potential impact of faith schools on cohesion and segregation. There are around 6900 faith schools in the state-maintained sector (which represent a third of all state schools). The majority are run by the Christian church (Church of England runs 4657, Roman Catholic run 2053 and around 82 are run by other Christian denominations), followed by Jewish (36), Muslim (6) and Sikh (2) schools.  Debates on the validity and legitimacy of faith-based education go beyond the scope of this article. It is however interesting to point out that, according to a poll conducted in 2001, while only 27% opposed the increase of Church schools, the figure rose to 43% when Muslim and Sikh schools were added to the question, thus highlighting that non-Christian schools are still perceived negatively in Britain.

Incitement to Religious Hatred
Another issue which sparked a fierce debate in Britain around religion took place in 2005 when the government introduced legislation to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence2.   Although an offence of incitement to racial hatred already existed under the Public Order Act 1986, it failed to protect certain religious groups that are not recognised in law as constituting a distinct ethnic group3.  This was obviously particularly relevant to the Muslim community, who had been more and more at the receiving end of attacks since 9/11. It was also the case that certain far-right groups were exploiting this gap in legislation to campaign against Muslims while remaining within the boundaries of the law. But the proposed Bill created large controversy: its critics felt that this would restrict significantly the right to freedom of speech and that existing legislation was sufficient to deal with attacks faced by Muslims. In the end, the legislation was adopted in a watered down version: its application is restricted to threats only, excluding abuse or insults on religious grounds and a clause requiring ‘intention to stir up religious hatred’ was introduced in the Act.

The case of faith-schools and the incitement to religious hatred law are just two examples of recent debates on the place of religion in our society, which we can see in the rest of Europe too, and which has been focused specifically on Muslim communities. In addition, the debate on racism has shifted significantly towards looking at religious groups and their ability (of failure) to integrate. So whereas in the past, there was much talk of the need to “integrate” black and minority ethnic people, today, there is a feeling that integration policies are really aimed at people who are defined by their religion, especially Muslim children and grand-children of immigrants. The resulting alienation and sense of injustice felt by Muslim communities has been exacerbated by Britain’s counter-terrorism policy, which has tended to stigmatise Muslim communities even further

How has Europe helped so far?

It is mainly thanks to European legislation that individuals can be protected from religious discrimination in Britain today. The European Union adopted two directives in 2000 to fight discrimination on the grounds named in Article 13 (racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation and age) of the Treaty of Amsterdam. Whilst the Directive 2000/43, otherwise known as the “Race Directive” established equal treatment of people irrespective of racial or ethnic origin in various areas, Directive 2000/78 – the “Employment Directive” – outlawed discrimination in employment and occupation on grounds of religion or belief (as well as disability, sexual orientation and age). Until 2003, a woman could still be refused a job working because she was wearing a hijab. This gap was addressed thanks to Europe.

The EU Article 13’s race, equality and employment directives required further regulations to bring UK law in line with EU requirements4.  The most important change in relation to the concerns of this report occurs under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations introduced in 2003. These prohibit direct or indirect discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the basis of religion or belief at work or in education. This provides some protection against religious discrimination in UK law. However, the regulation’s application is still less far-reaching than the protection against racial discrimination which applies to a wider range of fields. 

So how does the European Year fit in all this and can it deliver something positive for religious groups in general and Muslims in particular?

How relevant is the European Year for religion in Britain?

The European Year of Equal Opportunities for All 2007 provides an excellent opportunity for enhancing the rights of all minorities, but this might be even more the case for the religious groups. Indeed, whereas women and black and minority ethnic people, and more recently the disabled, have had well established equality bodies and legislation to protect their rights, religion is a fairly new strand of equality for many member states (as is sexual orientation and age). The European Year might therefore promote the opportunity for these strands to be given more focus and ensure that protection reaches the same levels seen in the more “established” strands. To a certain extent, this is already happening in Britain, with the introduction of the Equality Act, which has outlawed religious discrimination in goods and services as well, thus recognising the need to go beyond the EU demands.

At the same time, the European Year encourages us to look at equality in a more horizontal and overarching way; therefore, instead of looking at problems and solutions just for black people, or just for gay people, there is a case for acknowledging that the picture is often more complex and that one person might be discriminated against because he or she is a Gay Muslim or a Hindu women. The European Year is therefore a great opportunity to get all the people concerned together to promote equality and human rights, regardless of one’s age, sex, health, ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation, and ensure we do not forget the “for all” element of the 2007 Year.


1 Sarah Kyambi (2006) ENAR Shadow Report 2005 – Racism in the United Kingdom, p.14

2 Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006

3 Race relation case law has recognised some religious groups as racial groups on the basis that they shared a common culture e.g.: Sikhs or Jews. However, groups such as Muslims are not recognised with the effect of making legal protection 

4 The Race Relations (Amendment) Regulations 2003, the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations and the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.


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Sarah Isal is Senior Research & Policy Analyst at the Runnymede Trust. After completing her Masters in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, she worked for the UK Office of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.