Abdul-Azim Ahmed – Muslims in Wales after the 2021 Census6 December 2022
The Office for National Statistics has released the first information on religious affiliation from the 2021 Census, giving us a glimpse of the unfolding story of faith in Britain. The headline findings are significant but expected for those familiar with the trends. We see the numerical decline of Christianity, the increase in those stating they have no religious affiliation, and the flourishing of minority religions. While the numbers themselves can be stark, they continue patterns that have been present for over a generation.
The growth of Muslims in England and Wales is another such pattern, with the population increasing from 2.7million in 2011, to 3.9million (6.5% of the total England/Wales population) in 2022, placing Islam clearly as Britain’s second religion.
This is true of Wales too, where Welsh Muslims number 66,950, growing from 45,950 since 2011. What else do we know about Muslims in Wales from the figures released however, and where does it differ from the national picture?
The first thing to note is that the Welsh Muslim population is dwarfed by that of England. 66,950 Muslims in Wales against 3,801,183 in England. Of the Muslim population in England and Wales, 0.2% live in Wales. To phrase it differently, when we speak of Muslims in England and Wales, the Welsh part of that equation is 0.2%, and the English part is 99.8%. The implications of this in terms of Muslim civil society is significant: there are fewer human and financial resources in the Welsh Muslim population, and there are fewer institutions (57 mosques in Wales compared to 2000 or so in England – the latter can only be estimated). That said, being part of one of the four nations that comprise the United Kingdom, Welsh Muslims can punch above their numerical weight by virtue of symbolically representing one quarter of the union.
In the context of Wales too, Welsh Muslims comprise a smaller percentage of the population. Muslims make up 6.4% of the population of England, whereas Muslims make up 2.1% of the population of Wales. Muslims are more of a minority in Wales than in England, and as such the struggles of being a minority are more keenly felt.
Despite the smaller numbers, the Muslim population has grown between 2011 and 2021, by nearly 50%. Growing by half in ten years is no small feat. Natural demographic growth through new births is certainly part of it, along with migration and conversion (the latter two are potentially more noticeable in the Welsh context than England when considering the smaller overall numbers).
This growth becomes even more stark when accounting for Wales’ overall trajectory in terms of religion. The growth of Islam as a Welsh religion is the anomaly in Wales. Since 2011, there was a 14% decrease in the number of people identifying as Christian in Wales, and a 14.5% increase in the people who declared they have “No Religion”. Both of these are higher than the average for England and Wales as a whole. The least religious parts of England and Wales are also found in Wales, with the highest “No Religion” numbers found in Caerphilly (56.7%), Blaenau Gwent (56.4%), and Rhondda Cynon Taf (56.2%). Christianity is waning faster in Wales than England. “No Religion”, a complex category that includes “spiritual but not religious” types as well as ardent secularists and atheists, has a growing and deep foothold in Wales. Given these statistics, the increase in followers of Islam must be recognized as the success of minority community in growing and passing on their religion.
The 2021 Census has also highlighted the rise of the religopolis, cities in which religious identification is higher than the England and Wales averages. London is foremost amongst them, with the greatest religious diversity of all cities covered in the census. Leicester and Birmingham have also received the titles of “minority majorities” in coverage, indicating a shift in which no single ethnicity is over 50% of the population. All three of these cities also have high proportions of religious communities, including Christianity (which is often strengthened numerically through migration).
This super diversity is present in Wales too, with Cardiff being an especially religiously diverse part of Wales. It has the largest number of Welsh Buddhists (1,630), Hindus (5,434), Jews (690) and Sikhs (1,517). Christians makes up 38% of the population of the city (though outnumbered by the 43% who answered they have ”No Religion”). There are also 33,650 Muslims in Cardiff, representing just over half of the Welsh Muslim population as a whole. This concentration of religious minorities and Muslims in Cardiff speaks to the city’s global role as a port city, which has hosted a Muslim population for over a century (see work by Prof. Sophie Gilliat-Ray and Jody Mellor for more on this). After Cardiff, the largest number of Muslims can be found in Newport (11,280), Swansea (7,694) and Wrexham (1,540). All areas in Wales increased their Muslim population with the exception of Ceredigion, which decreased by six to 515 (a small enough number to be irrelevant) and Gwynedd which decreased by 241 to 1,137. Muslims in Wales then are mostly concentrated in South Wales (Cardiff, Newport and Swansea accounting for nearly 80% of all Welsh Muslims) but with communities of Muslims spread across the full breadth of the country.
There are still many more things to learn from the 2021 Census, especially once more detailed releases are made available. For now, the census data tells us Muslims are a growing part of Wales’ diversity, already well established as the nation’s second most populous religion. They are a religious community in good health in an otherwise increasingly non-religious Wales (in terms of identity at least). Muslims are largely urban, but not exclusively, with populations across all parts of the country. Finally, Welsh Muslims are a smaller minority in Wales than England, and so contend with the challenges this brings from institutional organization to political representation.
Numbers can only tell us so much however, the experiences of Muslims in Wales, their history, life, struggles and passions, are all overlooked by the more clinical statistics offered by the Census results. It is this human element that I am seeking to explore with the Islam in Wales project, launched in Cardiff in November 2022.
The project will document, for the first time, the story of Welsh Muslims and those who have settled here in Wales, made it their home, and built the communities that sustain them. Wales has had a Muslim population for a long time, dating back South Wales’ prominence in global trading and commerce (Cardiff and Tiger Bay is well known for the role it played in shipping, but often overlooked are Barry, Newport and Swansea). The experiences of these early communities, including post-war migrants, are at risk of being lost as older generations pass away, which is why the project will capture them through oral histories, family biographies, and collecting as much as possible for archiving.
If you’re interested in being kept up to date with the research project or contributing to it directly, you can sign up here.
Abdul-Azim Ahmed is a Research Associate with and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK.