Supporting Muslim scientists today

Supporting Muslim scientists today

Supporting Muslim scientists today

Following on from our blog celebrating the rich history of Islamic science Arqum writes about the experience of Muslim scientists in the UK today.

Currently, Muslims in the UK face barriers that can prevent them from pursuing or succeeding in scientific careers. Drawing on my own experiences, today’s post will discuss these challenges and what organisations can do to support Muslim staff.

UK demographics and the prevalence of Islamophobia

To provide some background, Muslims make up about 6% of the population in the UK. Not surprisingly, given Britain’s colonial history, over 75% of Muslims in the UK are BAME, making British Muslims an especially racialised religious demographic. There is no legal definition of Islamophobia, but it can be understood as discrimination, prejudice or violence against Muslims based on religious beliefs/practices, harmful stereotypes, racial identity, immigration status or perceived security concerns. Like other forms of discrimination, Islamophobia operates at both individual and institutional levels and has significant impacts.

At an individual level, a survey in 2022 found about 70% of British Muslims reported they had experienced some form of Islamophobia at work. Muslim women who wear headscarves or Muslim (and Sikh) men with long beards are especially vulnerable to these attacks, highlighting the gendered and racialised nature of Islamophobic violence.

At a structural level, socioeconomic conditions are worst for Muslims, even when compared within same ethnic groups. The Muslim Council of Britain reported in 2016 that 50% of Muslim households are in poverty compared to national average of 20%. In 2014, Muslim men were up to 76% less likely to have a job of any kind compared to white, male British Christians of the same age and qualifications.

When it comes to academia and science specifically data on religious demographics is not robust, but we do have some examples. For instance, according to data from 2014, Muslim students are less likely to be successful when applying to universities: students from Pakistan (where over 90% of the population identify as Muslim) receive seven additional rejections per 100 compared to applications by white students.

Arguably, the most concerning form of Islamophobia is state-sponsored with policies and policing that unfairly target Muslims or Muslim-majority demographics in the name of counter-terrorism, secularisation, or social cohesion. In some countries, religious freedom is curtailed with bans on headscarves/veils and halal slaughter. In the UK, the government’s counter-terrorism programme Prevent has been criticised for disproportionate targeting of Muslims, especially young people and students, as well as for engendering self-censorship of Muslim scholarship and political action. When the UK took an unprecedented move and revoked Shamima Begum’s citizenship leaving her stateless people quickly pointed out how her religion and ethnicity was a crucial factor. Clearly, Muslims in many countries are enduring a climate which is othering and discriminatory. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts to combat the uniquely Islamophobic practices on the individual, organisational and governmental levels are essential to an inclusive and equitable society.

Supporting Muslim staff in the workplace

From the recruitment process to culture, there are many straightforward ways Muslim staff can be supported at work to practice their faith. For example, being flexible around meeting times to accommodate daily prayers or ensuring social events don’t revolve around alcohol. During Ramadan, fasting and change of routine can affect energy levels and Muslims may require adjustments to start and finish times or request annual leave days during the month. When planning events, organisers can consider inclusive scheduling to make sure Muslims and people from other marginalised religions are able to attend. For larger events like conferences, provisions could be making attendees aware of prayer room facilities and providing halal options as default.

These initiatives all start with raising awareness among non-Muslim colleagues and managers, as well as providing training and guidance. The equality4success team at the Babraham Institute has created an intranet page with more information about practicing Islam in the workplace for staff to refer to. Everyone has an individual relationship to their faith so the best thing to do is work with staff to address their specific circumstances. We are creating a culture of inclusion and trust where Muslim staff feel confident any concerns they raise will be addressed with respect and good-will, and no one feels othered by having to ask for ‘special treatment’.

Ramadan is an opportune time for workplaces to organise events which recognise Muslim staff and productively engage allies to raise awareness and solidarity. At the Babraham Institute, grass-roots efforts from Muslim staff resulted in a series of successful events last Ramadan. We conducted a focus group on the International Day of Islamophobia (15th March) to discuss the lived experiences of Muslims in the UK and strategies to counter Islamophobia at the workplace and beyond. During Ramadan, we organised a delicious potluck iftar – a communal meal at sunset to break the daily fast. To celebrate Eid, we arranged a charity bake sale featuring traditional sweets to raise funds for earthquake relief efforts in Turkey and Syria. I am grateful for my Muslim colleagues at the Institute who volunteered to help with these events (especially Oisharja Rahman and Priota Islam) and everyone who participated to show solidarity and engaged in open and candid discussions.

The Babraham Institute is an excellent scientific research institute with a strong commitment to EDI where I feel comfortable and supported as a Muslim scientist. I would like to acknowledge the generous support from Elizabeth Wynn (equality4success Manager) in co-creating our resources at the Institute – allies are key so staff from marginalised groups don’t get burnt out doing the work alone. I hope the Institute’s commitment to supporting Muslim staff can inspire similar efforts in other research institutions, and I also hope these blog posts inspire healthy discussions amongst colleagues regarding Muslim welfare in the workplace and beyond.