The UK Government’s “British values” and intolerance is the problem, not Muslims

The UK Government’s definition of “British values” is the problem to integration, not Muslims, writes Sadia Habib.

Monday 5th December 2016 saw the release of the Casey Review focusing on opportunity and integration in Britain’s isolated and deprived communities. Accompanied by widespread media commentary, including some particular pernicious commentary from right-wing tabloids, it rapidly became clear that the integration rhetoric was one that placed the onus on migrants to demonstrate their fit to “British” society, gauged through questionable “British values”.

Instead of recognising how institutional racism pervades social structures, the spotlight always seems to glare upon the—in this case, Muslim—Other. And yet, the condemnation of “unintegrated” ethnic minorities, and particularly Muslim communities, who are subsequently blamed for social disharmony, is nothing new. Casey is simply repeating tired tropes that Muslims have become accustomed to hearing. Inconclusive messages about belonging harbour tensions and ambiguities regarding multicultural Britain: on the one hand politicians applaud diversity and integration, whilst simultaneously their policies impose assimilationist rhetoric. Rather than reflect Muslims’ contributions to British society, the report serves to perpetuate Islamophobic rhetoric.

Dame Louise Casey
Dame Louise Casey

Immigrants should take an “integration oath” is one of Casey’s recommendations. At what age will autochthonous peoples of Britain be pledging their oath of integration? Or is that they are born integrated, or do not need to integrate? The report also points towards speaking English as enabling integration. And yet, funding for English classes has been drastically reduced. Speaking, reading, and writing the English language does not make migrants belong, not when British society is rife with racism.

Moreover, emphasising English alone means that the pride we should attach to multilingual diversity is discarded in favour of monolingualism. Muslims critiquing the report have also pointed to the inconsistencies of targeting Muslims: What about China towns? Or areas where Jewish people reside in London and Manchester? Government narrative celebrates some ethnically diverse places, whilst condemning Muslim spaces.

The report advises schools to promote British values, law and history to enable integration and tolerance. Yet government’s representation of British values, law and history is often seen as contradictory, deceptive and irrelevant. Instead of imposing ill-defined British values upon us, would it not be sensible to provide opportunities for communities to explore what notions like Britishness and integration means to all Britons?

London’s LBC presenter, James O’Brien responded to the Casey report: “Do you think liberal values and tolerance are actually British values? I would love to, but I don’t any more. A country where you can put up a poster of people fleeing war with massive echoes of Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda with the phrase “Breaking Point” on it. You can unveil that on the day that an elected British politician gets murdered by a white supremacist terrorist. And then Louise Casey comes out and tells me that I live in a country where liberalism and tolerance are somehow fundamental to our national identity. Get lost. No they’re not. Intolerance and illiberalism are the new watchwords for 2017”.

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British MuslimsMy research with young southeast Londoners revealed Britishness is connected to both local identifications and transnational belongings. The young people – of diverse cultural backgrounds –wanted to discuss Britishness in relation to class inequalities and racisms. Britishness discourses initially emerged from political anxieties about Scotland and Wales seeking independence, but by 2011 “unintegrated” ethnic minorities – particularly Muslims – became the target of Fundamental British Values policies. There is no need for an ‘integration oath’. A nuanced report would have taken into account that British Muslims are loyal and active citizens for whom Britain is home.

Teachers are reluctant to promote this obvious political ideology, recognising “the dubious notion” of Fundamental British Values is “deeply alienating and offensive in its suggestion that Britain is somehow a unique source of democracy, respect and social justice”. Britain did not invent concepts like “freedom” and “tolerance”. Moreover the rhetoric of Fundamental British Values must also take into account “British imperialism, slavery and racism, which are fundamental characteristics of the British Empire”.

Concerns have been raised about children as young as two or three expected to learn vague and subjective Fundamental British Values such as “traditional British food including “roast dinner”, “fish, chips and peas”, and “seasonal fresh fruit”, as well as behaviour and traits including “eating with our mouths closed”, “using cutlery and napkins”, and “saying please and thank you”.

Muslim women

Casey chose to perpetuate the age-old Orientalist myth of ‘unintegrated’ Muslim womenfolk suppressed by patriarchal cultures and “unBritish” barbaric Muslim men needing state intervention and emancipation.  Muslim women, the report claims, are victims of “coercive control, violence and criminal acts of abuse, often enacted in the name of cultural or religious values”.

A national charity tackling domestic violence – Women’s Aid – cite statistics that show domestic violence is a major problem in British society: the police receive an emergency call on average every 30 seconds about domestic abuse, and on average two women are killed by their partner/ ex-partner weekly in England and Wales. “Coercive control” and violence affects women from all class, cultural and religious backgrounds, it is not a unique feature of Muslim communities or cultures despite the claims of Islamophobic media and political spokespeople.

Violent attacks against Muslim women have increased over the last two years.
Violent attacks against Muslim women have increased over the last two years.

Casey could have detailed the bleak post-Brexit socio-political landscape where racist hostility and abuse make Muslims feel unwelcome in the place they call home.

She could have investigated the material inequalities caused by institutional racism and sexism, as well due to the consequences of austerity which impact upon Muslim women’s lives, ambitions and career choices.

Flawed and dangerous reports like these are cited by extreme right wing politicians in order to penalise and punish an already persecuted minority through justifying even more Islamophobic policies. It is no surprise then that the report has been heavily criticised as simply more official racist rhetoric that serves to marginalise Muslims rather than address the class, gender and racial inequalities that are dividing Britain.

If politicians are sincere in wanting a better integrated Britain, then how about addressing the needs and concerns of those suffering the consequences of austerity policies?  It is time the government also acknowledges that class, gender, racial and religious discrimination are to blame for the problems of social exclusion and social deprivation in Britain, not Muslims.

Sadia Habib recently completed her doctorate at Goldsmiths in Educational Studies. She co-edits the popular blog The Sociological Imagination, and volunteers for a number of charity and social justice organisations.

This article was first published in the Sociological Review website.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of 5Pillars.

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