A shorter version of this article was published in Al Jazeera English.
‘Drawing on what we have seen and heard during the review, we suggest integration is the extent to which people from all backgrounds can get on.’ So suggests the Casey Review, the latest British government study of the problems of immigration and integration. Last year civil servant Louise Casey was asked by the then prime minister David Cameron ‘to consider what could be done to boost opportunity and integration in our most isolated and deprived communities.’ Her report was published last week.
Even by the standards of government reports, Casey’s definition of ‘integration’ – ‘the extent to which people from all backgrounds can get on’ – is particularly vapid. It sums up well both the tone of the report and of much official thinking on integration.
The central arguments of the report are familiar. Too much immigration and diversity, Casey suggests, has helped create segregated communities, with too many migrants who cannot speak English or are willing to accept British values. Muslims in particular are dangerously isolated, with a chasm between their values and those of society at large.
Casey certainly shows that there is considerable anxiety about the impact of immigration – though you would hardly have needed a year-long investigation to recognize that. What she does not show is that immigration is responsible for eroding social cohesion. In fact, much of the data in the report suggests the opposite.
Polls show that minorities, and Muslims in particular, have a greater attachment to Britain than does the population at large. They also show that nine out of ten Britons think that their community is cohesive, and local area a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. According to Casey this figure has increased (from 80 per cent to 89 per cent) since 2003. Britons, in other words, have become more positive about social cohesion in the very period in which ‘uncontrolled immigration’ has supposedly eroded peoples’ sense of community and belonging.
The story is, of course, a more complicated one than this. Immigrants are not evenly distributed throughout Britain. In those areas with higher proportions of immigrants people may be less sanguine about social cohesion. There is evidence both for and against this notion. Some studies have shown that anxieties about the impact of immigration is unrelated to the proportion of the local population that are of migrant background – areas with proportionately more minorities tend to be less concerned. Other studies have suggested that some areas where the total proportion of migrants is low but where there has been large influx of recent migrants, there is greater anxiety about immigration. All these studies can be read in a number of ways. What they do not show, though, is any straightforward relationship between migrant numbers and erosion of social cohesion.
Casey worries that there are 42 electoral wards in the UK in which ‘a minority faith or ethnic community had become a local majority of more than 50%’, alarmed that this reveals a high level of segregation. But that’s 42 out of a total of 9196 electoral wards in the UK; put in context the figure seems far less alarming. In any case, why should a high concentration of minorities signify a lack of integration? As Casey herself acknowledges, ‘high concentrations of minorities alone do not appear to be problematic for social cohesion between groups’. What matters are not the numbers but the degree of integration.
One of the signifiers of greater integration, Casey suggests, is greater inter-ethnic friendship. But she also points out that whereas half of first generation migrants have friends from other ethnic groups, three-quarters of the second generation do so. Inter-ethnic friendships, in other words, increase over time. And which group is least likely to have inter-ethnic friendships? Not an immigrant group but ‘White British’, just 4 per cent of whom have such friendships. Proportionately twice as many Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and three times as many Indians do so. This might be expected given that White British constitute the largest group and hence are less likely to meet people of other ethnicities. Nevertheless, it should again make us think more carefully about the relationship between immigration and integration, certainly more carefully than Casey does.
The problems of the Casey Review reflect broader issues with the discussion about immigration and integration. There are two fundamental problems at the heart of most such discussions today.
The first problem is the view of conflict as bad in itself. Integration is seen as a way of minimizing social conflict and of getting people to hold broadly similar views and values. But conflict is not necessarily bad. Nor is disagreement over even the most fundamental of values a sign of lack of integration. From a liberal viewpoint, the attitude of many Muslims towards homosexuality or women’s rights is troubling and needs challenging. But holding illiberal views is not the same as failing to integrate. That is why many Muslims are socially illiberal and yet feel British and integrated.
Certain forms of conflicts – physical confrontation on the streets, for example – are problematic. But conflicts over values, beliefs, ideals, are essential to a flourishing society. Only the existence of a diversity of conflicting views allows us to have our own views challenged, enables us to expand our horizons, and creates the possibility of progress and change. Such conflicts are the raw material of political and cultural engagement.
The real problem is not conflict itself but the form that it takes. Ideas about ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ have transformed in recent years. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. Many within minority communities want to find themselves and their place in society through a sense of their difference from other communities and groups.
In this process, social problems that were once seen as political issues have come to be reposed as cultural differences. Political struggles divide society across ideological lines, but they unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is true in cultural or ethnic struggles. As a result of the shift towards a cultural view of social issues, conflicts have become more intractable, and have been channeled into forms that are neither useful nor resolvable.
Social policies have only exacerbated this process. ‘Multicultural’ policies have tended to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining needs by virtue of the boxes into which people have been put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. The result has been to exaggerate conflicts over identity and to foster a greater sense of division. It is this, rather than immigration or diversity in themselves, that needs to be tackled.
We can see the problem of the ‘cultural turn’ in attitudes of Muslims. As I have observed before, the social conservatism of British Muslims today is relatively new. Had you taken an opinion poll of British Muslims 30 years ago, when I was growing up, you would probably have found very different results. My generation of Britons with a Muslim background was primarily secular. Religious organizations were barely visible. The organizations that bound together Asian communities (and we thought of ourselves as ‘Asian’ or ‘black’, not ‘Muslim’) were mostly secular, often political. Our struggles were defined by political beliefs, and our desire for equality led us to challenge not just racism, but also religious obscurantism, not just racist institutions but the power of the mosques, too.
It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. It is only then that the notion of a ‘Muslim community’ began to develop. It is also only since then that more conservative social attitudes have become widespread within British Muslims and the chasm between the attitudes of Muslims and those of the rest of the population opened up. Key in effecting this transformation has been the rise of identity politics and the impact of multicultural social policies. And yet, the Casey Review, like most reports of its ilk, has very little to say about this.
The second key problem is that the debate about integration ignores wider questions of social fragmentation. The issue that has dominated the news recently has been the growing disaffection of large sections of the population with mainstream institutions, and the creation of more fractured societies in which many, particularly traditional working class, communities feel politically abandoned and voiceless, ruling elites seem out of touch, and people inhabit myriad echo chambers, deaf to the views and values of others. All this has led many to reject the kinds of liberal values that defined postwar Western societies, fuelling the rise of populist and far right groups.
Just as many within minority communities understand themselves primarily in terms of identity and difference, so increasingly do many in majority communities. The reasons for the marginalization of the working class have been economic and political, but many have come to see it primarily as a cultural loss. Class itself has come to seen less as a political, more as a cultural or ethnic, identity – for instance, as in the growing use of the category ‘white working class’. Hence the importance of the ‘culture wars’ in shaping contemporary politics, and the way that disdain for the elite often takes a cultural form. The failure of the ‘liberal elite’ to understand that problems of working class communities is seen as a cultural as well as a political issue, its attachment to a liberal, globalized world shaping distinct cultural attitudes. At the same time the elite often looks with disdain upon what it perceives as the backward cultural tropes of the masses.
Many within majority communities also look upon those from minority communities primarily through the lens of their ‘difference’. As a consequence, they have come to see have come to see immigration as eroding national culture, history and heritage, and hence as a threat to be resisted.
The question of immigration and integration, and that of wider social disaffection, are usually only ever linked to suggest that too much immigration helps create disaffection. It is an argument that fails to understand the problems facing both minority and majority communities. There are certainly issues specific to immigrants and minority communities. But unless these are understood in the context of the wider problems of social fracturing and disengagement, we will continue to be blind to the real issues facing both minority or majority communities, and be left with merely the banalities and prejudices of such as the Casey report.
The paintings are, from top down, ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s heart’ by Grace Gardner; ‘320 Dots’ by Jessica Snow; and Piet Mondrian, ‘Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue’.