Comment: If the government is serious about Muslim integration it needs to look at its own policies

Apart from Islam, many Muslims have little in common, despite being forcibly drawn together as a ‘British Muslim community


The government’s latest round of counter-extremism policy included some tough talk on integration. It seems that we never have enough policy or legislation to deal with the task at hand.

Concerns about the nanny state are understandable when we consider just how far the counter-extremism strategy will reach into all of our personal and professional lives. It will judge our politics and what we read in our spare time, and police the internet.

I can imagine the headlines generated by the quest to protect our institutions from Islamist ‘entryism’: “Boy wearing ‘Free Palestine’ badge at school questioned by terror police.” Wait, hasn’t something like this already happened?

Like the many counter-extremism and Prevent initiatives before it, the latest strategy is heavy on rhetoric and powers of invasion, and light on real substance about how to tackle the real barriers to creating a safer, more cohesive society.

If the government is serious about ‘integration’, it needs to address the real issues that isolate Muslim communities, starting with its own policies, and the evidence on which they are based. My own doctoral research, which is concerned with the ways in which Islam is understood and lived in the everyday in England, offers a different perspective.

Over three years of fieldwork and study, I found Muslims to be a deeply diverse, often fragmented and varied ‘community’ of people. In fact, apart from Islam (the religion itself, interpreted in a myriad of ways), many Muslims have little in common, despite being forcibly drawn together as a ‘British Muslim community’, particularly when we understand that internally, community lines are often drawn along ethnic, sectarian, or linguistic ties.

That’s even before we take into account factors such as gender, class, race, sexuality and the historical context of various Muslim emigration and immigration patterns. Most Muslims were already part of Britain via the empire, and many moved to England as legal citizens of the British Empire. Despite Britain positing itself as a ‘host’ nation for migration, citizenship was afforded to most people who resided within its once very elastic borders.

Today, a cursory glance at Britain’s stance on the refugee crisis, once described by David Cameron as a ‘swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs’ hardly shows Britain as the benevolent host nation it likes to imagine itself to be.

The majority of Muslims in Britain are people of colour, and whilst it may be possible to talk about a second and third generation of British-born Muslims for South Asian heritage communities, the same cannot be said for the other ethnicities who identify as Muslim, still in the process of enculturation, and finding their way.

The nuances and complexities of Muslim identity and affiliations are still widely misunderstood by mainstream political and media discourse, which often conflates South Asian cultural, religious and ritual practices with all ethnic Muslims in Britain. Eastenders’ Masood family is a great example of how elements of South Asian culture and Islam are often mixed up.

So, then what should we be talking about?

Most Muslims I encountered were concerned about socio-economic issues like accessing decent housing, higher education, combating issues of drug abuse and gang violence, racism, Islamophobia, and sadly, constantly feeling hopeless as decision-makers centre discussions on Muslim communities through the lens of terror and extremism. That’s on top of the struggles of everyday life.

Organisations like the Runnymede Trust have been warning us about socio-economic disadvantage and Islamophobia for a long time. Isn’t it about time we listened?

The counter-extremism strategy is yet another government policy which paints Muslims as the enemy within. The strategy will inevitably affect Muslim so-called ‘integration’ into mainstream British society. We are already seeing the negative effects of counter-extremism narratives, which talk about Muslim communities through the lens of terror, blight Muslim lives.

For example, visibly Muslim women are now the focus of most Islamophobic hate crime, and as we saw with the recent racist attack on an elderly Turkish Muslim man on a bus, our elderly, frail and disabled are not spared either.

Accusations of ‘victim mentality’ in Muslim communities ignore the fact that Muslims are indeed being victimised for their faith, dress, and ethnic culture and seeming unwillingness to ‘integrate’ on the one hand, and on the other, are being silenced by government policy which explicitly raises concerns about groups creating ‘safe spaces’ where the ‘mainstream majority’ are excluded.

NUS opposition to Prevent ensures that there are at least a few spaces where students can develop critical thinking without fear of the extremist label. Unless of course, your name is Malia Bouattia or Bahar Mustafa.

The British ‘mainstream majority’ already enjoys the privilege of a society constructed around Eurocentric narratives whilst the ‘rest of us’ need to find ways to ‘fit in.’ Do they really need to be included in spaces which are designed to give the marginalised a voice in their own internal issues?

Does ‘integration’ mean giving up everything that makes one unique, autonomous and individual, in order to be accepted as one of the herd? And in a time of globalisation, issues of socio-economic, regional, and national differences across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, what is ‘integration’ anyway?

We need discussion, debate and dialogue around questions of Muslim ‘integration’, which is why SOAS Centre of Islamic Studies will be bringing together academics, students, journalists and activists under one roof in a conference called Muslim Integration: Engaging with the Discourse.

As someone who has seen first hand the fears and insecurity in many of Britain’s Muslim communities, the importance of such forums can’t really be overstated.

The SOAS – Nohoudh Muslim Integration Conference 2015: Engaging with the Discourse will be held on 5-6th of November 2015 from 9:00 AM at the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre at SOAS

For details and registration: integration-conference/

Farrah Sheikh is a Nohoudh/PhD Scholar at the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS

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