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

  1. Sid

    Inegration is the acceptance of British values of tolerance and liberal democracy in a country that is nominally Christian, but in reality is quite secular and adverse to people being overtly religious.

  2. GhostofJimMorisson

    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.

    No, they’re not. A couple of appalling examples of bigotry does not mean there is a nationwide epidemic of anti-Muslim bigotry. BY and large, the people of this country, and indeed Europe, have been overwhelmingly accommodating and tolerant of Muslims. This has not been reciprocated. Douglas Murray was correct when he said that Europe has not failed its Muslims; Islam has failed Europe, and Islam has failed its Muslims.

  3. RedQueen

    Good article with some very pertinent points.

    But somehow I doubt that the solution to all of the very complex problems that the author identifies can be solved in the NUS “safe spaces” policies at Universities. In fact it’s a bit depressing that the author, after acknowledging the diversity of the British Muslim experiences, appear to think that the rarefied and privileged space of our univeristies are the only spaces in which these conversations can take place.

  4. RedQueen

    Yes, there was a recent survey which showed that tolerance of racial diversity is growing but that hostility towards religion is also increasing. Which leaves British Muslims in a tricky space.

  5. Peem Birrell

    حظا سعيدا مع ذلك

  6. Michael Worcester

    As with all groups there are good and bad. With Muslims it seems the closer to the original teachings of the Koran the more incompatible with British life and values they become. ISIS is as close to the life of Mohamed as you can get (including sexual slavery of children, aggressive war and just plain evil). These fundamentalist sects are Wahhabi, Salafist and possibly Diobandi (they don’t seem to have taken a position). Later versions of Islam such as Ahmadi are peaceful but they are treated as heretics by the fundamentalist and are also persecuted as are shia. We should help those that want to leave the fundamentalist sects especially those that renounce Islam as they are persecuted in the UK. We should ban Salfist teaching as hate speach (I note there is a school in Small Heath Birmingham) and not allow anyone near children that hold these evil views.

  7. Dave Stewart

    It’s intersting you bring up Wahhabism. If we truly want to combat global Jihadi terrorism it might be a good idea to stop supporting Saudi Arabia who are the originators and exporters of Wahhabist (I’m not sure of the correct adjective here?) doctrine.

  8. Michael Worcester

    The falling oil price could save the western world as once Saudi has an end to easy money the country will implode and they will stop propagating this evil

  9. jj

    So how would this writer sort out the issue of Wahhabism in Islam? What would he do to counter the main source of ultra orthodox, highly conservative islam?

  10. jj

    Surely that leaves all those who adhere to religion in a tricky space. By your on admission, Sikhs, who are highly religious, but also predominantly Indian, would be in a ‘tricky space’, the only thing is, Sikhs are generally not the ones who commit terrorist acts. Jihadism is the leading cause of terrorism in recent times.

  11. jj

    It would be interesting to see if the Islamic world would be accommodating of other Religious groups if they suddenly migrated there. With the large proportion of Islamic countries I highly doubt it, most of the middle east treats religious minorities really quite dreadfully.

  12. RedQueen

    ” By your on admission, Sikhs, who are highly religious, but also predominantly Indian, would be in a ‘tricky space’, ”

    Not at all as I didn’t admit anything other than polling shows that the British are becoming more hostile towards religion. All polling shows that Muslims in general, and Islam in particular, are much more distrusted than any other religious group.

    ” Sikhs are generally not the ones who commit terrorist acts. Jihadism is the leading cause of terrorism in recent times.”

    You’ve answered your own question as to why Muslims, and not Sikhs, are in a much more tricky space

  13. CGR

    KFC refuses to serve ‘BBQ Bacon Boss Box Meal’ because it was not halal in Derby.

    That is NOT integration !!!!

  14. jj

    When groups who are distinctively Islamic, albeit very radical, have caused almost every single major terrorist attack on innocent people, take the Taliban, ISIS, boko haram, Al Shabah in Somalia, Al Queda in Yemen, and Wahabbism coming out of Saudi Arabia, are you really surprised that the rest of the world doesn’t have a reaction, especially when, even Muslims in this country go off to Syria to murder with ISIS or become jihad brides. Its sickening in the extreme.

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