To a secular person, the differences between Catholics and Protestants within Christianity are pathetic. They are almost totally in agreement in their central beliefs yet cultural differences keep them apart — almost as widely as 500 years ago when the initial division took place.
Nevertheless, except in areas that are economically stressed — such as happened in Northern Ireland or Glasgow — the differences are not so obvious in public consciousness today because both schisms are now losing supporters. Members of both are steadily because secular. Day-to-day cultures always finally supersede older cultures even though it may take generations to do so.
Much the same applies to Shia and Sunni Muslims. Their differences are 1400 years old. However, in pre-invasion Iraq Sunnis and Shias could live peaceably alongside each other and young middling-to-poor people from the two schisms could actually marry each other. True, in their case, Saddam Hussein, by birth a Sunni but in practice secular, together with his secular Baath Party kept the Sunnis down. Today in Hussein-free Iraq it would be impossible for Sunnis and Shias to marry. One or other — or both — would be assassinated.
As, almost certainly, a Shia Muslim would be in England if he entered a Sunni mosque to worship. Shias are conditioned from puberty onwards to worship with arms held at their sides. A Shia attender would be recognised immediately. The mosque managers or imams wouldn’t condone this, of course, but there are always fanatics in any sizeable religious congregation.
There are almost 3 million Muslims in England, mainly immigrants in the last 15 years, of which six out of seven are Sunnis. There are a few hundred Sunni mosques in the country but only a score or so Shia mosques. English Shias are worried by a widening gulf between them and Sunnis — caused mainly by what is happening in the Middle East — whereas Sunnis are worried about a widening gulf between the Bangladeshi and Pakistani majority among them and a growing number influenced by Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia — which country lavishly subsidises mosques and religious schools here.
While Christian congregations are declining in secular England, Muslim congregations are growing due to the fact that most are first generation and have slightly larger families. Also there are a growing number of English converts to Islam — albeit in very small numbers. The total population of Muslims in England will be growing for 20 or 30 years yet but will then decline as the first generation dies and the second and third generations — with smaller families — become more secular.
The vast majority of immigrant Muslims are well content that they are able to buy the full kit of consumer goods that is typical in an advanced country. In a few generations and intermarriage they will as indistinguishable from us — the descendants of Roman, Danish, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon immigrants in times past. In the meantime, though, a few ‘rough edges’ which are against English law need to be knocked off — if the police would only become more active such ethnic cases. These rough edges include Muslim parents fixing their children’s marriages and also the practice of circumcision — otherwise genital mutilation — of girls, both cruel practices.
One very interesting — and surprising — feature of English Muslims is that, although most are still mainly poor, their children, and particularly girls, do much better at exams in school compared with the children of an equivalent 3 million English poor. This is no doubt due to stronger parental motivation. Thus, as well as an inexorable trend towards secularism, will mean that more Muslims will be able to break through the higher educational threshold of the social elite. Intelligence is thus becoming a much strong selective factor than it ever has been.
In due course, however, most immigrant Muslims will have fewer than replacement numbers of children — and become similar to the indigenous population — and they, like most of the population outside the elite will proceed gently to extinction in, say, 200 or 300 years. Until then it is to be hoped that the bulk of the population will continue to be kept at reasonable levels of welfare payments by the taxation of the elite whose advanced skills will be paying for at least a slight balance of payments surplus in trade with the rest of the world.