Friendship has a great practical impact on our daily lives. Friends obviously provide economic benefits: they can recommend you to their employers, lend you money, cook you dinner or let you sleep on their sofa.
They are also of enormous cultural and psychological importance: they can offer words of reassurance or criticism that would not be accepted from a colleague; they form the bedrock of social life and advice. And, of course, friends may also become romantically involved or marry.
Ties of friendship, and our willingness to form these ties with others, need to stand at the heart of our definition of integration. A society where people are open towards becoming friends of other people who are unlike themselves is a social good. We tend to see and care about injustice when it affects people we know and like. Such experience is much more telling than reading a statistic on the news. So if our friendship networks incorporate people with different heritages in terms of class, religion and ethnicity, then concerted political action will be a natural response. In other words, the ability of civil society to hold governments to account is linked to this ability to empathise with the way that others feel and are treated.
Integration, therefore, is, in part, something we are all responsible for. It is the duty to make eye contact, exchange a greeting or make way for strangers. It is to treat fellow citizens as potential friends. I have in mind the offers of kindness that have been made towards refugees in some towns in Germany and the UK, where strangers have offered accommodation and shown solidarity with those in need. What would I stress, however, is that this kind of solidarity should not just be offered to asylum seekers, but to all members of our society.
Nevertheless, these everyday changes in behavior are often approved of in theory, but not in practice. There is a security that comes from being among people who are like us, where one does not have to justify or explain difference. But this kind of security, or cohesion in government jargon, comes at the expense of a lack of empathy with the condition of others. The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference.
In particular, we need to recognize that in order for distinct ethnic and religious groups within a society to retain a separate identity, they also need to police who their members befriend or marry. Out-marriage in particular risks diluting the identities and loyalties of the next generation. This policing occurs at various levels:
Firstly, personal names, dress, diet are often features that are ‘naturalized’ from childhood. They are marks of the kind of person our parents wanted us to be, of the kind of company where we would feel normal. These signs difference may signal non-availability to prospective marriage partners from outside the group, but they also ward off other forms of social contact.
Secondly, residential concentration can also have an important role in controlling the social interactions of group members. Concentration may occur as a response to discrimination or because of shared need for religious institutions, but one effect is that the comings and goings of group members are much easier to monitor by ‘community leaders’. It also means that serendipitous meetings with people from outside the group are much less likely.
Thirdly, parents and religious leaders may explicitly warn against friendships with non-group members for fear of ‘bad influences’ and romantic liaisons. This is a consistent observation in ethnographies of Muslim communities in Britain. The research of Jonathan Scourfield et al. on young Muslims in Cardiff showed that eight to ten year olds had already had a sense of the dangers of a mixed, liberal environment: ‘Christians live there [in Cardiff]… young people kissing each other…[if you marry a Christian] Allah will punish you and you’ll go to hellfire and you burn.’
I argue, therefore, that the wish to police marriage boundaries, and preserve communal identity and authority, has two negative side effects. The first is to restrict the liberty of group members, the second is to damage the fraternity of the wider society. Critically, the same mechanisms that prevent the kinds of encounter that lead to marriage will also hinder the formation of friendship. The first solutions to this should not come from the state, but from the conscious recognition of each of us of the need to make new friends across old boundaries.