More than 10 years ago, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, declared that integration was “a two-way street”. As head of a detoxified Conservative party, he affirmed that we could aspire to be a more united country if we recognised our diversity.
Within the space of a decade, that attitude dissipated. It reflected the success of a core group of ideologues keen to unleash a phoney culture war that scapegoated Muslims and cast doubt on this country’s diversity. Once in office, Cameron declared that multiculturalism allowed people to lead separate lives, and therefore led to extremism.
Just before he left office, the former prime minister charged Dame Louise Casey with investigating the state of integration in our country. For those looking to attack Muslims and “failed multiculturalism”, she did not fail to deliver. Casey put a “moral onus on ethnic minorities for the supposed failures of integration”, proclaimed integration was “not a two-way street” and publicly used her platform to wrongly conflate criminal acts with sharia law. This all builds up a dangerous narrative in the public mind.
Consider, for instance, the laudable objective of reducing the number of people who cannot speak English, and therefore struggle to participate in society. This week, Casey took to the airwaves with the eye-catching ultimatum that the government should set a deadline for everyone to speak English. Rather than examine the issue as it affects all sections of British society, last year she suggested that this was a problem in Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, failing to acknowledge that the greatest number of those unable to speak English well, are “other white”.
Perhaps it would be good to recognise why people choose to live near someone familiar to them, as expat Brits do in Spain, and why others may opt to live in segregated communities for complex reasons, such as housing policy or “white flight”, rather than focusing primarily on immigrant communities. Policies based on such an approach would acknowledge that segregation among Muslims has actually been falling, and that a large and growing proportion (89% in 2015-16) thought their local area was “a place where people from different backgrounds get on well”.
With news of Britain First’s Facebook page being banned, we should recognise that these are challenges across all parts of society, and give due regard to the intolerance of Muslims among a large section of our society. Yet too often, people ignore the challenges faced by the “white British” population in favour of a conception of a “top-down, mono-nationalist and establishment ‘British values’ approach”, which assumes it is only the non-white “other” people who must be civilised.
James Fergusson who travelled across the country meeting Muslim communities for his book Al-Britannia, My Country: A Journey Through Muslim Britain, thought that it was an “obvious fact that integration is a two-way street”. Yet there are too many who are unyielding in their insistence that the traffic is only one way, and towards them.
It is therefore a relief that the government’s green paper on integration appears to have understood why the Casey Review was the wrong approach. Yes, there are some factual errors, a lack of sufficient funding for the work, a prioritisation that does not align to the need in our society – according to the equalities thinktank the Runnymede Trust – and a disproportionate focus on Pakistani and Bangladeshi, as well as Muslim, communities. But the tone was far more consultative and positive.
The prime minister, for example, celebrates our diversity as a nation in Casey’s foreword, and explicitly recognises faith as an enabler for good; the report proposes policies to tackle real barriers to integration of minority communities, such as poverty and social mobility, labour market inequalities and political participation. There are discussions on the importance of tackling discrimination and hate crime.
But I fear that the strategy risks falling at the first hurdle, with Muslim communities in particular, if the government appears to be undermining it by tolerating hate against Muslims. Just this week, Theresa May made a conscious decision to campaign with Bob Blackman – a man who not only hosted an anti-Muslim extremist in parliament but also shared an anti-Muslim post by the infamous Tommy Robinson.
Also this week, we heard no censure of Nadine Dorries, who resorted to anti-Muslim tropes common within far-right extremist circles in a tweet directed at the mayor of London; an approach that echoes the silence that followed Zac Goldsmith’s “disgusting” dog-whistle anti-Muslim campaign during the London mayoral election.
And again this week, Muslims across the country received “Punish a Muslim Day” letters, and four Muslim MPs received suspicious packages, the government response was extremely poor. Victoria Atkins, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for the home department, ignored questions asked by MPs and cited the security fund to protect places of worship – a fund that is currently closed.
On Wednesday, the Muslim Council of Britain report on integration stated that “all Muslims in their full diversity … cannot and should not be treated as anything but equal citizens, and our expectations cannot be different”. For any government strategy affecting Muslim communities to succeed, there needs to be a fundamental rethink of the government’s approach – one where trust is rebuilt, communities are listened to and action is taken. I cautiously hope this green paper – a vast improvement on the Casey Review – will be the start of this change in approach, but I am not holding my breath.
• Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain
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