What's the link between integration and extremism?

Today, Ruth Kelly, the Minister for Local Government and Communities, launched a new Commission on Integration and Social Cohesion. It is due to report in June 2007, with a remit that was described by Lord Parekh on the Today programme this morning as ‘vague’:


Diversity brings key benefits to the UK — contributed to by existing second and third generation ethnic minority communities as well as recent increases in immigration. But it can also lead to tensions. As a nation we face questions about how different communities can live together, respecting differences, but also with a shared sense of belonging and purpose.

1. Within this context, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion will consider how local areas themselves can play a role in forging cohesive and resilient communities, by:

a) Examining the issues that raise tensions between different groups in different areas, and that lead to segregation and conflict

b) Suggesting how local community and political leadership can push further against perceived barriers to cohesion and integration

c) Looking at how local communities themselves can be empowered to tackle extremist ideologies

d) Developing approaches that build local areas’ own capacity to prevent problems, and ensure they have the structures in place to recover from periods of tension.

2. The Commission will undertake its work within the context of existing Government policy, for example on managed migration and preventing extremism. It will be grounded in an understanding of current and future patterns of diversity, but will focus on developing practical solutions for local communities based on the best existing practice.

3. It will also consider the needs of communities defined by a shared characteristic (such as race or faith), which may require regional or national solutions.

4. Recommendations for local areas will cover England only, but will consider issues which affect Scotland and Wales, and good practice from other countries.

5. The Commission will report directly to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and will be expected to deliver its findings in June 2007. [1]

The terms of Commission’s remit reflect the changed nature of the debate on multiculturalism after 9/11. The basic premise, reflected in this remit, is that an overemphasis on accommodating diversity has led to segregation between communities and to extremism, the policy codeword for Muslim radicalism and far-right activity (the police tend to include violent animal rights activists too in their definition). The Commission has also been tasked with working within existing policy on ‘managed migration and extremism’, which potentially prevents any radical rethinking. Additionally it is to find ways of applying local best practice nationally. This is standard practice for such commissions, but there is a danger that, given its remit, it may just end up rubber-stamping the ‘community cohesion’ policy initiatives of the last five years instead of scrutinizing and re-evaluating the whole approach to integration.

Britain is more diverse now than it was five years ago, the latest manifestation of which has been the inward migration of 427,000 Eastern Europeans who have come to work here in the last two years (to which a further 200,000 have to be added who do not have to register because they are self-employed, according the the current Immigration Minister, Tony McNulty). [2] In my part of Leicester, a new community of Poles settled in the last year: the local library now has two racks of Polish books, the local video store stocks Polish films, and Polish cafes and corner shops are springing up to add to the mix of mandirs, gudwaras, mosques, African churches and ethnic food retail outlets from Lithuanian to Gujarati that dot my local area. Modern urban Britain is more multicultural than ever.

This simple social fact means that politically multiculturalism is not dead, as Trevor Phillips, the head of the CRE argued back in 2004 — it can only be reinvented or reimagined. There has been a renewed emphasis on developing a common civic culture based on shared values, shared not just by individuals (as in the French model) but also as expressed through communities. Some would like to move closer to the French model, which does not recognise or accommodate the claims of groups. Munira Mirza of the Institue for Ideas argues that the very fact that government entertains group claims in the first place is divisive.

I think the government is aware that society is fragmenting into tribes…. But if they are talking about creating common values for different faith groups, what are they? The government’s approach is wholly preoccupied with Muslims and that in turn tells people that being a Muslim is the most important part of them. They should stop talking to people through the prism of religion and start talking to them as citizens.[3]

This argument comes close to the classic Rawlsian myth of the neutral citizen of the liberal state, who comes cultureless to public debate, which is guided solely by the dictates of reason. This is rather far removed from the mix of self-interest, principle, cultural baggage, reason and rhetoric that tends to prevail on all sides in public life as it really operates. Instead the government is trying here to strike a balance between diversity, or a recognition and accommodation of different groups, with the rights and duties of the individual citizen.

The language used by politicians of the liberal-left to describe these shared values is largely legal and civic in nature, rather than national and historical. It’s all about being hardworking, law-abiding and adhering to democratic values. This is rather uncontroversial in and of itself, but perhaps rather demeaning to those recent and not-so-recent migrant groups who tend to embody these values in a rather exemplary fashion for the most part. A more basic point, which has been reiterated recently by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, is that our values allow us to express our disagreements (i.e. we recognise our interlocutors as moral agents in our attempt to persuade them, seeing that they are amenable to moral arguments) rather than acting as mechanisms of flattening conformity. [4]

At the same time, this inclusive language is undercut by anxieties about the divisiveness of diversity. These tensions are characterised in communal rather than individual terms, and various initiatives have been undertaken since 2001 under the rubric of ‘community cohesion’ to get these communities together. The more facile or commodified aspects of multiculturalism were satirised back in the 80s as ‘samosas, saris and steel bands’: today’s ‘community cohesion’ might easily degenerate into ‘pancakes and popadoms’. More so than grand government initiatives, it is the art of conviviality, laced with large doses of pragmatism and laissez faire, that needs subtle encouragement.

It will be quite difficult to avoid the work of the Commission being overshadowed by the spectre of terrorism of the Muslim variety. British Muslims might fear that, indirectly, there is a discreet correlation being made between what is seen as their perceived lack of integration and the emergence of home-grown suicide bombers. The political mood this summer has hardened: there is more consensus, particularly in the press, that too many British Muslims have failed to integrate and are in denial about the challenge that extremism poses. But to posit this connection between a lack of integration and extremism, while not completely unfounded, is too simple. The profiles of some of the bombers indicate cultural and not just formal integration prior to their radicalisation. After all, Mohammed Siddique Khan was also known as ‘Sid’ to his English friends and was described by them as a ‘Beeston-lad born and bred’. [5] The more painful and subversive truth is that extremism may be as much an outcome of integration as the lack thereof. Perhaps the globalised nature of al-Qaeda-type terrorism has blinded us to the historical truth that terrorism has emerged from political conflicts within societies too. But one would hardly expect in our world of realpolitik that the Commission will undertake to pursue such a line of reasoning. Instead, the focus will most likely be on culture, not politics.

[1] http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1501522.
[2] Guardian, 22 August 2006; Times, 23 August 2006.
[3] Dominic Casciani, ‘The UK’s ties that bind’, BBC News Online, 24 August 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5280244.stm.
[4] K. A. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (New York: Norton & Co., 2006).
[5] Nasreen Suleaman, ‘The mystery of “Sid”’, BBC News Online, 19 October 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4354858.stm.


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