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The False Markers of Integration

Even the most hard-hearted of us must have felt a modicum of emotion during Tony Blair’s speech announcing the date of his resignation. The man has a way with words and is a talented orator. For a brief interlude I felt a spark of national pride, a sense of unity. Blair claimed that Britain was the “greatest nation on earth.” My British-ness which insists that I understate everything (“how are you now that you’ve won ten million pounds in the lottery” “can’t complain”) and which writhes in pain at self-promotion squirmed painfully when I heard this. It was more reminiscent of Bush and America. Paradoxically, his words did create a momentary flicker which did make me feel proud to be British (not because of Tony’s activities!). Just for a nano-second I felt part of a nation.

As a country we experience relatively few of these moments of nationhood. Princess Diana’s death was perhaps one, the fall of Margaret Thatcher another. The sore thumb in this list might be the day London won the bid for the Olympics. It was a day of positive achievement.

That to me appears to be where one of our key problems as a nation lies. As a British people we are like a gaggle of gossiping old ladies. We wheedle out the negatives, look for the problems and divisions, ignore the facts and then dispense unmerciful small-village justice to all and sundry. No wonder it’s all doom and gloom. And misery and negativity causes a downward spiral of poor analysis and shoddy judgements. We all know what happened with the scare-mongering about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If you go out with a pre-conceived theory looking for trouble, you will be sure to find it.

The BBC’s Panorama programme is very guilty of this approach. They aired a show recently about Britain’s “growing ethnic division”. They focused their analysis primarily on Blackburn but also on some other big cities and then analysed the behaviour of its ‘white’ and ‘Muslim Asian’ inhabitants looking for the signs of division and apartheid. This uncomfortable labelling was the programme’s own. Each little experiment they ran was designed to see how the paths of these two groups ran separately, how they embodied today’s buzzword: “parallel lives”.

For example, the programme makers went out on a Saturday night in a big city centre to see whether ‘whites’ were out with ‘Muslim Asians’. The predominantly Muslim Asians were playing snooker in smoke-free clubs. It was a comparatively quiet night out. The ‘whites’ were out in pubs and clubs getting plastered on their night off. They certainly seemed more animated and lively. Instead of us worrying about this growing phenomenon of binge drinking that brings so many desperate complications with it, we’re being told that the fact Muslim Asians aren’t doing it too is a cause for concern.

The programme failed to note the obvious – Muslims, by and large, don’t necessarily want to go out, get horribly drunk and go partying. Does integration demand that they do? Clothing seems to be an issue as well. Does integration demand that Muslim women should swap their long black cloaks, for short black dresses? What about love and relationships. Does the victory of multiculturalism require inter-marriage? Politically motivated choices about life-partners will only be a hollow meaningless victory. Policymakers want ethnic communities which include Muslims to speak only English to their children at home, instead of teaching them literacy at school.

These are the wrong questions, and inevitably they lead to the wrong answers, the wrong decisions and therefore they bring into being the very issues they describe. The same fingers are not pointed at other communities. These are false indicators of integration and cohesiveness and are designed simply to pick out these ‘problems’ with Muslims. Find a city and watch the interactions and paths of different classes and you will find the same conclusions. You won’t see someone from Chelsea shopping with the kids from the block in Brixton. The students at Oxford University don’t hang with their peers from down the road.

These attitudes are particularly grating because they fail to acknowledge the positives that are happening. Studies that challenge the assumptions are swiftly ignored. Where is our sense of looking for the positive? We should look through optimistic spectacles, not bang on with our own gossip-mongering prejudices.

A Lancaster University study, commissioned by the Home Office, examined the attitudes of 435 fifteen-year-olds on race, religion and integration. The students surveyed were at a predominantly white school in Burnley, a predominantly Asian Muslim school in Blackburn, and a mixed school in Blackburn. The study concluded that: “It might be reasonable… to suggest that it is the Asian-Muslim students in both the mixed and monocultural schools of Burnley and Blackburn who are in fact the most tolerant of all.”

Gallup commissioned a poll of Muslims in London. It found that Muslims’ loyalty to Britain is greater than the general public: 74 per cent as opposed to 45 per cent. Of the Muslims polled, 57 per cent said they identified strongly with their country, compared with 48 per cent of the British public.

A recent Populus poll agreed with this survey where it was found that only 33 per cent of the general population said they had Muslims as close personal friends. And yet almost 90 per cent of Muslims said they had close non-Muslim friends.

The poll indicates that Muslims are just as worried about the daily essentials and local issues as everyone else. These include issues such as the rise of gun crime, the increase in gang-related crime, poor education amongst the youth, high unemployment and poor health.

The great surprise then is no surprise. If we stop creating negative self-fulfilling prophecies, we find that most people share a sense of national identity, they want the basics to be taken care of, and they just want to live happy pleasant lives.

This article was recently published in The Muslim News