Migrants, Muslims, and Multiculturalism

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In December 2016, Dame Louise Casey published her “review into opportunity and integration” in the UK. Rather than highlighting the thousands of positive examples of integration that Britons practice on a daily basis, the report once again reinforced old-fangled and patronizing political attitudes about migrants, Muslims, and multiculturalism. 

As expected, the tabloids used the report to fuel a sensationalist and scaremongering agenda.  The Sun newspaper’s headline about the release of the review read “British Muslims are so cut-off from society they think 75 per cent of the UK is Islamic, report reveals.” The Times also jumped on this claim that “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75% Muslim.”

Tabloids prominently featured the report’s claims that thousands of Muslims live in isolated enclaves with their own housing estates, schools, and television channels.

Academics have observed the ways in which media and political discourses on integration are frequently “punitive,” putting the onus on migrants to ensure they are presenting themselves as integrated into society. This is demonstrated by the Casey Review and the subsequent defensiveness of Louise Casey when questioned about the punitive nature of her report. Instead of accepting that the report’s Islamophobic and racist undertones has resulted in even more ways for Muslims to be Othered, Casey has vehemently defended the idea that integration is the responsibility of migrants.  

Integration, she believes, is not at all an issue for the host community. That the majority white population could work harder in getting to know British ethnic minority communities is never discussed in national conversations on integration and social cohesion, nor by the Casey Review.  It is in fact this majority white population which is isolated from multicultural neighbourhoods and towns even as ethnic minority communities are wrongly blamed for “self-segregation.”

In fact, despite the eagerness of the government to propagate the idea that Muslims are unintegrated, there is extremely limited empirical evidence to support such an idea.

What the report ignores is that racist values are the real problem. Instead of recognizing that institutional racism pervades social structures, the spotlight is always glaring upon the Muslim Other. Muslims are well aware that despite constituting less than 5% of the British population, they are increasingly subjected to state-sanctioned Islamophobia and surveillance and are routinely demonized in the media.

In its quest for promoting integration and tolerance, the report advises schools to promote British values, law, and history. Yet the government’s representation of British values, law, and history has long been contradictory, deceptive, and irrelevant. Instead of imposing ill-defined British values upon us, would it not be sensible to provide opportunities for communities to explore what notions like Britishness and integration means to all Britons?  My research with young southeast Londoners revealed Britishness is connected to both local identifications and transnational belongings.  The young people – of diverse cultural backgrounds – also wanted to discuss Britishness in relation to class inequalities and racism.

The discourse around Britishness itself emerged from political anxieties about Scotland and Wales seeking independence but by 2011 “unintegrated” ethnic minorities – particularly Muslims – became the target of policies promoting Fundamental British Values.

Teachers are naturally reluctant to promote this political ideology, recognizing “the dubious notion” of Fundamental British Values as “deeply alienating and offensive in its suggestion that Britain is somehow a unique source of democracy, respect and social justice.” Britain did not invent concepts like “freedom” and “tolerance.” Moreover the rhetoric of Fundamental British Values must also take into account “British imperialism, slavery and racism, which are fundamental characteristics of the British Empire.”  

Concerns have also been raised about children as young as two or three expected to learn vague and subjective Fundamental British Values such as  “traditional British food including ‘roast dinner,’ ‘fish, chips and peas,’ and ‘seasonal fresh fruit’, as well as behaviour and traits including ‘eating with our mouths closed,’ ‘using cutlery and napkins,’ and ‘saying please and thank you.’”

The review also points to English as an indicator of integration but speaking, reading, and writing the English language does not mean migrants belong, not when British society is rife with racism. The review also discards multilingual diversities in favor of monolingualism.

It may also have made sense to look at the effects of austerity on some of the initiative that Casey herself has called upon the government to pursue. Funding for English classes, for example, has been drastically reduced for a long time.

As Councillor Rabnawaz Khan writes in response to the mention of his neighbourhood of Longsight in the report: “I don’t believe there is a ‘them and us’ divide in the neighbourhood where I reside and represent but accept that there are challenges. These challenges have become more apparent because of the austerity measures by Central government over the last few years.”

Casey also chose to perpetuate the age old Orientalist myth of “unintegrated” Muslim womenfolk suppressed by patriarchal cultures and “unBritish” and barbaric Muslim men in need of state intervention.  Muslim women, the report claims, are victims of “coercive control, violence and criminal acts of abuse, often enacted in the name of cultural or religious values”.  

But according to Women’s Aid, a national charity tackling domestic violence, domestic violence is a major problem in British society as a whole: on average the police receive an emergency call every 30 seconds about domestic abuse and two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales. “Coercive control” and violence affects women from all class, cultural, and religious backgrounds. It is not a unique feature of Muslim communities or cultures, despite the claims of Islamophobic media and political spokespeople.

Casey could have detailed the bleak post-Brexit socio-political landscape where racist hostility and abuse make Muslims feel unwelcome in the place they call home.  Casey could have investigated the material inequalities caused by institutional racism, as well due to the consequences of austerity which impact upon Muslim women’s lives, ambitions and career choices.  Flawed and dangerous reports like these are cited by extreme right wing politicians in order to penalize and punish an already persecuted minority and justify even more Islamophobic policies.  

It is no surprise then that the report has been heavily criticized as simply more official racist rhetoric that serves to marginalize Muslims rather than address the class, gender, and racial inequalities that are dividing Britain.  If politicians are sincere in wanting a more integrated Britain, then how about addressing the needs and concerns of those suffering the consequences of austerity policies? It is time the government also acknowledges that class, gender, racial, and religious discrimination are to blame for the problems of social exclusion and social deprivation in Britain, not Muslims.

Sadia Habib, PhD. is a former teacher who recently completed her doctorate in Educational Research at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research interests focus upon young people's racialized and classed identities. She is a co-editor of The Sociological Imagination.