I was privileged to attend the MCBs launch of the report ‘Our Shared British Future,’ hosted by Naz Shah MP at the Houses of Parliament last week. The report is an anthology of perspectives from people from different specialisms on the challenges of Muslim integration in the UK today. Well-timed, it coincided with Sajid Javed, the Communities Minister’s announcement of a public consultation on integration. In all, the event seemed well-organised, and Miqdaad Versi’s hard work in compiling the report as well as chairing the event came through. However, I left with mixed feelings. The report was imbalanced and fell short of presenting an accurate and nuanced picture. A better structure would have been to (a) positively make the case for how far communities have actually come along in only 50/60 years as a baseline before (b) addressing both (1) internal and (2) external challenges. In fact, the speeches and case studies presented at the event seemed more coherent and balanced in comparison to the written publication. James Ferguson’s (author of Al-Britannia) early presentation, for example, brought an air of positivity to the event pointing out that there is already ‘terrific social mobility’ and that ‘overall the outlook is much more encouraging than the orthodox view suggests.’ Aside from this, I was also quite perplexed to see that God was only mentioned in ten out of the 130 pages of the report. In fact, you have to get to the end of the report, at page 114 to find the first mention of God. This made me think, is there a deeper, more troubling effect going on here?
Much of the report highlights socio-economic conditions within pockets of communities, referred to as ‘Muslim,’ where it remains unclear as to why religious identity should be considered the significant factor in the debate on integration. The conditions to which the report refers reflects issues around social mobility in inner city post-industrial towns where (in the main) poorly educated, working class immigrants settled to meet the demand for manual labour. Subsequently, immigrant communities formed close knit communities out of a shared culture, and partly also as a reflection of the housing policies of successive governments. But over time, these ‘social microcosms’ have become opportune for segregation and cultural inertia. What is evident is that the shared identity of such communities are far more rooted in their ethno-cultural identity than a shared religious outlook, and often, rather than being one large community, an area may be made up of various ethnic communities (whilst sharing the same faith) with their own particular interests but superficially judged by those on the outside to be alike due to their ostensibly shared ‘brownness.’ Interestingly, organisations that exist to ostensibly serve a particular ethnic identity – be it a Pakistani cultural association or an Asian business association etc – they’ve managed to largely evade detection and responsibility towards integration. Arguably, by consequence, they’ve unnecessarily amplified heat on bodies that are ostensibly to do with religion such as mosques and Islamic schools etc.
As individuals, we have various identities we navigate including those related to our faith, but wind back to 15 years ago and the underlying basis for political engagement centred on ethnic identity – we were British Bangladeshi’s or British Pakistanis or British Somalis etc. So how have we become a ‘religious community’ and the focus centred on it? There are possibly three factors playing out. (1) A security focus in the last decade has turned issues of integration from a socio-economic and cultural issue to one with both tenuous and indirect links with extremism. (2) Communities that also happen to be Muslim have not responded with any strategic intervention often because their ethnic interests and faith-based interests are either considered as one and the same, or because it remains useful in order to rally a wider cohort from society behind their own cause. (3) At play is also the poorly documented phenomenon of cognitive dissonance whereby many simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values, which require pacifying by self-claims of being a ‘religious community,’ for convenience, to avail people of their responsibility to evaluate options.
Second and third generation descendants of immigrants who came to the UK for economic reasons are at crossroads between divesting transnational belongings of diverse ancestry and dealing with Britain as home. The confusion this creates and the resulting conflations made, come to the fore in the calls of one submission that we’re not ‘encouraged to participate in national conversations in a way that isn’t directly in relation to [our] religious identities.’ For a group of citizens who seemingly come together on the basis of their faith, which other identity are they meant to participate with as a religious group? Ostensibly, such lamentations spring from using religion as a source of ethnic protest, where God sits squarely outside of the conversation. The report explores the sentiments of Muslims as an ethnic group (which of course they aren’t) and speaks for those who lifestyles and culture might be informed by a Muslimness rather than the primary objective of being subservient to God.
What becomes clear is that the term ‘Muslim’ is readily appropriated without much thought given to what God wants today of those British people who primarily seek to be truly subservient to Him. We have a tendency to market ourselves under the identity of ‘Muslim,’ yet we relegate God in how we do subservience (Islam) and be appropriately subservient (Muslim) in the wider context, particular in the politics of identity and public engagement. The fact that you have to flick to page 114 to see the first mention of God is simply a reflection of this. The point came across by someone in the Q&A session, who questioned whether as Muslims we can legitimately consider ourselves to be religiously literate, let alone define ourselves as a ‘religious community.’
Putting aside this problem of conflating religious identity with ethnic-culture, the social mobility issues come from a mix of failures. Firstly, first and second generation immigrants, for sentimental reasons, were often lured by a ‘myth of return’ to ancestral homes at the expense of building a thriving home and future for them in Britain. It meant that, over decades, they sent billions of remittance money outside of the UK, building huge mansions and acquiring land in ancestral countries – much of which by the way fails to attract the interest of the 3rd/millennial generation. Secondly, there have been many policy failures such as not encouraging and supporting immigrants to learn English and new skills, and not intervening to facilitate a kind of multiculturalism that encouraged endearing and meaningful mixing of communities, and avoiding the phenomenon of ‘white flight.’ The push for the integration of society based on ‘British Values’ in recent years comes perhaps a little too late for those who we went to school before it became part of the national curriculum, or those beholden to post-modern tendencies. Thirdly, there has been a lack of well-executed strategies for economic regeneration of post-industrial towns. This is similar to the issues which the movement for a Northern Powerhouse is attempting to overcome. Some minorities, including various Caribbean communities alike, just happened to be caught up in the historical fact of this.
Solving complex social problems require understanding and accepting the spheres of responsibilities that can be distinct as well as shared between citizens, public institutions and government. Only then is it possible to practically and productively focus on delivering outcomes. It’s actually much more subtle than calling for a ‘two-way street,’ as the report did, for the simple reason that some things require government to take the lead on or to intervene in, but it would still require citizens to comply, shape or make use of. Hence it’s not like a street where you stay in your lanes, but you need to criss-cross and work across them in both ways. Similarly, other things may require citizens to step-up and own their own narratives to do justice to themselves or, perhaps, to help the wider public and government see the opportunism that lies in a particular initiative. A ‘street’ analogy is also quite ironic from the point of view that we know for a fact that streets can be jammed, where pot-holes exist, road rages occur and have tolls and lanes at different speeds etc.
Interesting, the lack of emotional intelligence was very telling in a poem towards the end of the report which questions, ‘Will I Always Be An Outsider?’ This poem was read out at the beginning of the event, and follows a growing genre of spoken-word/poetry. But it’s not like unearthing the subtleties of human nature or societies – in the genre of Rumi or Wordsworth for example, but rather in the style of post-colonial rhetoric and ‘immigrant frustrations’ taken up as a hammer that threatens to treat all government social policy and Westernism generally as if it were a nail. But the funny thing is, the author, as a Cambridge and LSE graduate, and a working solicitor, is herself the product of the social mobility of the current system which she bemoans. Such voices lack emotional and political intelligence, and end up protracting the status quo rather than productively contributing to an efficient and feasible way out of a perceived exploitative phase.
With the above said, I want to end with a note of hope. Naz Shah MP explained how she and others have influenced Sajid Javed MP into using much more neutral language. Similarly, the director of the Khayaal Theatre, Lukman Ali, and the CEO of Muslim Aid, Jehangir Malik, who presented case studies showed that Muslims and public institutions alike can, and do need to, reach out and do more to meet their own responsibilities.
The question is, do we have the right insight, political and emotional intelligence, and religious literacy to do so?