Our Shared British Future is the Muslim Council of Britain’s report on the integration of Muslims in Britain, timed to coincide with the government’s Green Paper on integration.

It stresses that most British Muslims consider Britain to provide their only national identity and that only 6% of Muslims find it difficult to operate in English.1 Increasing numbers hold university qualifications and some 46% of Muslim undergraduates are female, defying stereotypes about Muslim women being held back from education. Segregation, while it does persist, is nowhere as bad as racial segregation in the US.

Nevertheless, the report points to major socio-economic problems for British Muslims. These are often those faced by the rest of the population (youth unemployment, poverty and poor housing), but they are supplemented by specific anti-Muslim discrimination and identity crises, in which young Muslims do not ‘fit in’ in Britain or in any other country. There is a sense among some young Muslims that demands for integration amount to ‘lose some aspect of my identity and assume additional aspects recognised by the government’.

The report draws on a wide variety of different viewpoints to highlight the problems of workplace bullying and of media distortion of stories relating to Muslims. I found Husein Kesvani’s contribution, based on his forthcoming book, especially persuasive. Kesvani stresses the internal diversity of British Muslims (by generation, as well as cultural and confession), but notes that they often face the same kinds of problems as the rest of the British population. In particular he hopes that young Muslims will be encouraged to ‘participate in wider national conversations in a way that isn’t directly in relation to their religious identities’, in ‘local and national political activism, volunteering, mentoring and creative schemes’. He suggests that ‘we will find that the needs and wants of young British Muslims aren’t that different from other young, alienated people across the country’.

However, Kesvani’s comments seem, at one level to contradict the raison d’être of the MCB itself. If British Muslims suffer from economic problems that they share with others, why does it make sense for them to be approached by governments, or represented by ‘community leaders’, as a body of Muslims? There was rightly a sense that David Cameron’s initiative to target Muslim women with poor English proficiency was not well framed. While well meaning, it seemed to hold Muslims to account for problems that other communities also shared, or even imply that Islam was the ‘cause’ of poor language skills among women. But such targeted interventions are encouraged by the existence of community leaders who function as ethnic or religious ‘entrepeneurs’: they speak on behalf of a population as Muslims, rather than as citizens or as members of a class or constituency. I worry that institutions like the MCB may divide Muslims from others who ought to share their economic or political interests.

The opening pages of the report includes a quotation from Tariq Modood stating that no model of integration should be dismissed, including models that seek to maintain the cultural differences of group identities. The problem here is that the assertion of a group identity often involves the suppression of minority opinions. How practicing does one have to be to count as a Muslim? And who gets to decide who counts as a Muslim? The MCB does not consider Ahmadis to be Muslim: this may well correspond to the majority opinion of its members, but it should illustrate how the ‘democratic’ structures of such lobby groups can also suppress the capacity of minorities within minorities to identify as they choose. Certainly, there was no mention in the text of anti-Ahmadi discrimination or violence by Sunni Muslims in Britain.

There is also a second problem with Modood’s idea that groups can integrate as a whole. This is that group boundaries need to be closely policed in a cosmopolitan setting to ensure that members do not opt out by adopting a lifestyle that is seen as un-Isamic or by ‘marrying out’. The burden of this policing is often placed on women, on how they dress, where they work and study and whom they socialize with. As this report itself points out, the fear of Islamophobia can produce a fear that any criticism of male Muslim sexism by Muslim women will be seized on by enemies of ‘the community’. Indeed, the needs of the community may be reason enough to prevent victims of so-called honour crimes from seeking help.

One further issue linked to the policing of group boundaries is how far Muslims socialize with non-Muslims. It seems to me that this matters hugely, because it is a prerequisite for real trust and understanding. The report only addresses this very briefly: James Ferguson gives the example of a well-educated Muslim professional who moved to Birmingham to give his son religious schooling. He was civic-minded and deeply engaged in his mosque, but his son knew no non-Muslims whatsoever. Ferguson’s example is deeply troubling because it suggests that social investments in the institutions of the Muslim community do not translate into a broadening of contacts with non-Muslims. In sociologists’ terms, bonding capital does not lead to bridging capital.

Jonathan Scourfield et al. made similar findings in their study on Muslim children in Cardiff. They found that Muslim children were markedly less likely to participate in non-religious extracurricular activities and that friendship networks were often closely supervised by parents and limited to Muslims, often of the same ethnicity. Interviews with children also showed that many saw the world in binary terms: they never went into central Cardiff, they said, because it was full of Christians kissing and drinking, and that if you married a Christian you would go to hell. The comments suggest that these children had internalized a worldview that divided people according to religion and derived their own self-identity from a sense of moral superiority to a (white) Christian out-group. I suggest that ethnographies of how children spend their time may provide our most reliable evidence for integration, since it shows where families’ real priorities lie and how these affect social behavior.

Finally, the report addresses the so-called conflict between British and Islamic values. Naz Shah MP comments: ‘There is zero conflict between my Muslim values and “British” values…my Muslim values are shared values regardless of faith; based on human values of love, care and mutual respect and support for mankind. This is unlike “British values” which change over time depending on the decade. These haven’t always been about equality, at one point were anti-people of colour, anti-gay and anti-women. Someone needs to define what British actually means.’

I share Shah’s disquiet over British values: it strikes me that Britain does not have a monopoly on fair play or democracy and it seems to be ironically illiberal to insist on citizens all holding the same worldviews. A better common ground, it seems to me, is not to instruct citizens to believe the correct thing, but to enable them to be constructive critics of those in authority and hold them to account. But this critique should be directed against the authority of religion and community as much as the state, and I am concerned that organizations like the MCB also encourage group members to close ranks against dissent. Certainly, there is no space in the document for criticism of Islam, no space for ex-Muslims, cultural Muslims or occasional Muslims, or for those dissatisfied with Muslim orthodoxies.

Shah’s comments are also revealing when she says that British values have also been anti-people of colour, anti-gay and anti-women. Such accusations could also be made against interpretations of Islam, but she presents Islam as uniform and timeless. The representation of Islam in the report as a whole emphasizes its call to charity and its condemnation of segregation and its message to all peoples. I am certainly heartened that the clerics and activists quoted here interpret Islam in this way, but not all do. Others endorse the clear subordination of women to men; forbid friendships with non-Muslims (or members of other Muslim confessions) or argue for the killing of apostates. These conservative interpretations of Islam are simply ignored here. Here I think the authors of the report lost an opportunity to demonstrate that religion can be defined in different ways; that Muslims are open to conversation and critique on the subject and that Muslims are aware that there are conservative or extremist interpretations of Islam but can also explain why these should be rejected. To do this would go a long way towards demonstrating that Islam is simply another part of Britain’s religious landscape.

Footnotes

  • 1 The correct figure for Muslims struggling with English is actually higher. 2011 census data from England show that 16 per cent of Muslims aged 16 plus could neither speak English at all or well. 3 per cent could not speak it at all while 13 could not speak it well.

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