I have not disclosed my religious affiliations at work for over a decade. No, that’s not true. I did once tell my former line-manager—also our director—who promptly quipped, “I hope you’re not going to blow yourself up.” Ah yes, and I confided in a couple of Muslim colleagues five years ago.
But apart from that, my faith has been a great secret, helped in large part by the fact I have worked from home for years. Salah at work has always been performed in private. In all that time, I have always been able to hide behind my identity as anti-social git to free myself from social gatherings and Christmas parties at the pub.
That secrecy, of course, is emblematic of what we’d call white privilege. In the Muslim context, there’s often a gender privilege too. A Muslim woman who wears hijab has no such hope of just blending in, unnoticed and invisible. Perhaps it is cowardice on my part; perhaps I just never felt the need to proclaim my beliefs in a workplace so indifferent to anything but project workstreams.
No, but in truth there was a conscious decision not to speak of my faith in my current employment, after unpleasant discrimination early on in my career. Once I established myself in my role, I chose to keep my head down and just plod along, content to have secured steady employment at last. Even now, I don’t trust colleagues I have worked with for years not to make life difficult for me if they became aware of my faith. It’s not so much about their reaction, as that of the new managers and directors who have joined the organisation after me.
I work in an organisation with a workforce of nearly eight thousand people. Interestingly, the number of people who declare self-identifying as Muslim is just two hundred people—under three percent of staff—although about a quarter of the workforce has chosen not declare their religion at all. Only twenty staff members self-identify as Jewish or Sikh. Those identifying as Hindu make up about 1% of the workforce. Nearly fifty percent, meanwhile, identify as Christian.
These percentages are not far off national trends. Sixty-percent of the British population self-identifies as Christian. Twenty-five percent state no religion. The Muslim population is less than five percent. The Jewish population is less than 1.5%. So perhaps the number of religious minorities in the workplace really is as low as it seems to be. Nevertheless, I do wonder sometimes. I’m probably not alone in not declaring my religious affiliations at work, for fear of discrimination.
Of course, this is nothing new. I’m reminded of the stories my grandmother used to tell me about my Methodist grandfather both in the army and his later office career, where he felt he encountered religious discrimination. He too was derided for not drinking alcohol, excluding him from the social gatherings that might have enabled him to get ahead in his career. In the army, he thought he was discriminated against for adhering to a non-conformist creed. Mockery of religious folk in the workplace seems to be commonplace.
Even after all these years, I’m not particularly senior in the organisation. My post, I believe, is moderately stable, but I am certainly not indispensable. I work hard, perform my duties to the best of my ability and seem to be well-respected, but that’s not to say things would not become precarious if somebody decided they no longer liked me or disliked my beliefs. Still, sometimes I think I should come out to be an ally to those further down the ladder, who find themselves in the kind of situation I did in the first decade of my working life. Perhaps the time has come to stand up and be counted.