On the 18th of December, Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, issued his first substantive policy statement in response to the Louise Casey’s review into Muslim opportunity and integration. He proposed an oath of allegiance to British values for every public office-holder. This would include wording such as “tolerating the views of others even if you disagree with them”, “believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse…a belief in democracy, and the democratic process” and “respect for the law, even if you think the law is an ass”.
At Averroes, we were baffled when David Cameron in his Counter-Extremism Strategy, which commissioned the Casey Review, defined ‘extremism’ as a stand-alone concept denoting any opposition to fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and religious tolerance. How could any discourse on extremism absolve itself of establishing even a weak causal link to violence and terrorism? How would we, in practice, interpret such hazy notions as democracy, the rule or law or tolerance? Should we even be stigmatising, penalising and ostracising such unsavoury views from democratic open liberal societies? Just some of the points we made in our submission to the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Javid has added to the confusion. He wants to instil these British values through an oath of allegiance. Can Javid aid us with even one example of a public office holder who was found wanting in these values? Do oaths have such an overpowering effect, that their utterance immediately and irrevocably etch the required feelings and beliefs into the subject’s heart? If only cleansing people’s hearts and minds of nasty undemocratic and intolerant views were that simple.
The proposal is aimed at elected officials, civil servants and council staff, who may be averse to the foundational ideas of democracy and equality. Further still, the context of the Casey Review and the Counter-Extremism Strategy implies it is Muslim officials, who we should be wary of. Given the scant numbers and gross underrepresentation of Muslims in all three fields of work, those few will already be feeling like Javid is pointing a finger at them. It is also unclear what the evidence base is for the presence of such views. Even if we take Casey’s observations as gospel, she is clearly not referring to this section of the population, who have excelled professionally and moreover are giving back to society through public service. After all, these Muslims were not the subjects of her Review. They are neither isolated, nor lacking opportunities, but well integrated and successful. These are the exact people, who we should be celebrating, making mentors and appointing ambassadors for those Muslims and minorities, who lack the resources or the ambition to aim high. They demonstrate the ideal of not only integrating, but contributing to British society. Rather than be seen as a fifth column or threat to ‘our’ way of life. They should be empowered and supported, not suspected and stigmatised.
It must be said unequivocally and conceded that we are living in an ever more dividing society as was clear during the campaigning for the EU referendum. There was a sharp spike in hate crime post-Brexit against almost all vulnerable groups, including shockingly gay people and the disabled, not just EU migrants and Muslims. We have only recently seen the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a neo-nazi loner and a man stabbing another at Forest Hill Station, while shouting “I want to kill a Muslim”. From another perspective, as immigrant communities become increasing second and third generation, many are more integrated culturally and professionally. An indicator of this is the discernible rise in key fields such as politics, media and the arts. This of course does not negate the ghettoised communities, who continue to be culturally insular and socio-economically disadvantaged. By identifying such isolated communities along religious lines, we subsume others who we should not. By using the prism of extremism to attempt a solution, we shoot ourselves in the foot by securitising an essentially intercommunal problem. It has to be a two/multi-way process built on trust and mutual confidence.
More importantly, let us stop narrowing the terms of the debate to suit certain political agendas and let us address the problem objectively and head-on. Integration is not purely a matter related to Muslims, nor is the only reason to address it, an unestablished link to violent extremism. Integration is essentially an issue of ethno-cultural (and linguistic) identity and values. We muddy the waters by generalising it into religious terms and subsume numerous communities. We need to drill down and identify unique impediments to integration within specific communities. We must also accept that not all problems are down to isolated communities, such as socio-economic factors, or perceived and actual discrimination. What of increasingly ghettoised white working class communities, who often live adjacent to ethno-cultural ones? What of places where African, Indian or Jewish communities exist in autopoietic social bubbles, where they seldom have contact, let alone a relationship with those of other groups.
Integration cannot be about ‘extremism’ as Cameron, Casey and Javid frame it. It must be about us being stronger, trusting, caring and happier as a society, encompassing a rich tapestry of cultures and beliefs. We must endeavour simultaneously to sign up to a Britain, where we all believe we have a stake, belong and are ready to stick our neck out for our fellow Brit come rain or shine; whether black, brown or white.