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Muslim women who wear the veil appear to be trapped between their faith and the demands to conform to Western conventions. The government and media suggest that Muslims are not doing enough to integrate. But are they being asked to integrate or assimilate?

Some say it’s the 11th September, 2001.  Others point to the 7th July, 2005 as the starting point for the widespread and strategic victimization and criminalization of British Muslims.  Muslims I have spoken to don’t remember the weeks and months immediately following these tragic dates fondly.  Some recall being spat at, or the discomfort of being mumbled about and moved away from when getting on a bus or a train.  Others speak about having to suffer the all-too-frequent humiliation of being stopped and searched by police.  “It felt like the whole country was against us,” was what many have said.

An anecdote, told to me by a friend at that time, also captures the flavour of the day with some precision: 

It’s 4.30 am.  The entire country is asleep, except for my friend and a staggering drunk, who sings distortedly into the night.  Despite the element of disturbance, she is forced to admire the power in his voice!  In mischievous mood, however, my friend discreetly fits her mouth into the space that is her slightly opened kitchen window, and bellows:

“Shuuuut uuuup!”

A little startled, but not sober enough to know which direction the voice had come from, the drunk retorted:

“Oh fuck off, you Muslim bastard!”

She tells me how her horror at his response stopped her hushed sniggerings in their tracks as she lamented on our times.  Why did he assume the voice belonged to a Muslim?  No good reason.  He couldn’t see my friend.  The area where she lives is diversely populated.  She speaks with a typical London accent.  But everyone was blaming Muslims for whatever went wrong at that time, so why shouldn’t he?  There we have an example of how people dangerously and regardlessly follow the tide of the tribe!

Muslims have been in Britain en mass since the 1960s.  These early Muslims seemed to appreciate the host nation’s efforts to promote multiculturalism: where different ethnic or cultural groups live together peaceably in a society.   But three generations on, it is clear that something has gone wrong.  Some young British Muslims are radicalizing like never before. 

Last year July, it came to light that Muslims, born and bred in England, had chosen to become suicide bombers.  They blew up themselves, and their fellow country folk, as a means of expressing their discontent with something.  Many suggest they were radicalized in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  But that is little comfort when one considers that they chose the path of radicalization anyway.  In the Oxford dictionary, integrate is defined as, “to bring or come into equal participation in or membership of society.”    Assimilate is defined as “to absorb (people) into a larger group, make like; cause to resemble.”  These young men neither opted for integration nor assimilation.

Something that worked for their parents had not worked for them.  There is no multiculturalism without integration.   It has taken marches, passionate speeches, and race riots, and even now it’s not perfect, but multiculturalism, particularly in London, has long been one of Britain’s assets.  It’s no wonder, then, that people of position were expected to promote the harmony the nation had gone to great lengths to achieve, and were severely berated if seen not to be.

If you’re old enough, you may remember the case of Ray Honeyford, a head teacher at a school in Bradford.  In 1984, he asserted that Asian children would be better integrated if they were to improve their English and learn more about British history.  He also suggested they should stop being given special treatment in curriculum areas such as swimming, where girls were not allowed to participate because of not being allowed to expose their bodies.

Mr. Honeyford paid dearly for such utterances; they were out of sync with those of the current climate.  Left-wing supporters taunted him, and the press crucified him.  He was forced to leave his job and is said not to have worked since.

How times have changed!  Jack Straw, former Foreign Secretary, and current Leader of the Commons, has recently made a nation-shattering revelation; apparently, during meetings, he asks Muslim women to remove their veils!  This is on the basis that covering their face is seen as “a visible statement of separation and of difference.”  In the same vain our Prime Minister, speaking to The Times, has added that the rest of the nation wants assurance that Muslims have got the right balance between integration and multiculturalism.  He went on to say that “when people do integrate more, they achieve more as well.”  I think Mr. Blair is talking about assimilation, not integration!

How shamefully bold, the pair of them!  That our nation’s most prominent leaders are promoting intolerance in this way beggars belief.  Could they have got away with this in the 80’s? Or Would they have suffered the same fate as Mr. Honeyford?  Would Mr. Honeyford’s remarks have been praised today?  Would they have been welcomed as a constructive part of the dialogue about whether teaching assistant, Aishah Azmi, should have been suspended from her school in West Yorkshire for insisting on wearing her veil in the classroom?

Earlier this year, Channel 4’s Dispatches aired a programme showing how the different generations of Muslims relate to integration.  Whereas the norm amongst immigrant communities is for the second generation to be more liberal and more secular than their parents, this is not the pattern that was noted amongst Muslims.  Today’s young Muslims are said to be less liberal and more religious than their parents, many commenting that they feel “…different… and separate from the rest of the nation.”  Instead of sitting aghast, Britain must look at why this has happened.

Each immigrant generation will have different expectations.  When you come from a different country, your expectations are lower than when you are born here.  On arrival, you are just happy to have made it through immigration and to have been given the opportunity to set up and consolidate your new life.  Some resentments for the host nation are there, but these are harboured more quietly, unless something really dramatic happens to force you to scream, kick and shout.

As someone who is born here, you spend your life flirting with two cultures: that of your parents, and that of your own hybrid variety, created by virtue of the fact that you are British, but have a different base culture as a source.  You benefit in a way your parents could not have; you speak the language like they never will, you understand the host and its system, and can predict it like they never will.  You will have opportunities in employment, and other areas, like they never did or will.  Despite encouraging you to integrate, your parents are also telling you what aspects of your own culture to hold dear, and trying to prepare you for any pitfalls, as they perceive them.

You then grow up.  Despite your achievements, you know the elements of disenchantment that come from being part of the system, yet that comes from the way you are perceived because of what and who you are.  To an extent, your higher expectations are met, but not entirely.  Where your parents’ expectations weren’t met, you expect that yours will be.  When expectations are not met, you find something else to cling onto, something else that helps you to make sense of your existence and reality.  Today’s young Muslims have come of age in a time when there is talk of a “War on Terror” that is presented as being synonymous with a “War on Muslims” and Islamophobia.  Their parents never had that!  Hence, the emergence of what is referred to as radicalism and fundamentalism.

This is where we wonder why a country that has been practising multiculturalism for over 30 years has not managed to achieve a level of integration that pervades society in a way that is meaningful and far-reaching.  This is not to suggest that much has not been done.  Acts to safeguard equal opportunities have been passed; faith schools have been promoted; quangos and public bodies have produced written guidelines; diversity workshops introduced; we even have a BBC that has been criticized for being over-zealous about airing minority issues.

So what’s gone wrong?  Despite all these efforts to promote multiculturalism, little has been done to develop a culture that is multiculturally British.   Values that are multiculturally British, an identity that is multiculturally British, and an educational system that is multiculturally British.  A multiculturally British society would be one that acknowledges and values the contributions that the various cultures in British society have made to the world.  But acknowledgements must seem real and equal to those made about the host nation.   Educational efforts have been made in RE with its coverage of many faiths, but something broader and more holistic is needed, something that pervades all aspects of society so it feels less tokenistic and more genuine.  For example, less Euro-centric history lessons, and discussion around the implications of different beliefs in RE.  School is important, as it is the place where people first begin to develop a sense of how they are perceived and what they are worth.

Until a couple of weeks ago, many were of the opinion that despite its shortfalls, Britain was proud of its achievements in integration.  But it seems this is not so.  A copy of a Daily Express from last week features an article entitled, “How the ‘liberal’ BBC tries to crush any other point of view.”  In it, the paper’s Chief Political Commentator, Patrick O’Flynn, berates the BBC for “marginalizing Right-of-centre views.”  He adds, “With the BBC’s new ‘diversity tsar’ Mary Fitzpatrick lobbying to get Muslim women in full-face veils reading the news, this bias shows no signs of abating, and if anything is becoming more pronounced.”  Might I suggest that Ms. Fitzpatrick had better watch her back; we’ve seen what happens when your opinion is out of sync with that of public opinion.  Remember Mr. Honeyford!

Such coverage, along with the current commentary on the notorious teaching assistant, and calls for Prince Charles to defend Christianity and not any multi-faith traditions at his coronation, represents the turning of the tide.  Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has been criticized for “going against the majority of the country” and defending the right of Muslim women to wear the veil.  Rowan Williams must also remember Honeyford!

We are witnessing the death of multiculturalism and real integration.  We are entering an age where assimilation is being demanded.  This is in keeping with the general clamp-down on civic freedoms: the introduction of ID cards, DNA data-basing, the curtailing of religious freedoms, and a sense that governments want us all under constant surveillance.  Then there is the element that arouses one’s suspicions: I’ve not seen any veils in schools, or on the faces of many public speakers, and I’m actually wondering how commonplace this is.  This is an issue with Aishah Asmi, but is a minority case being represented as mainstream to create hysteria and manipulate majority opinion?  I do wonder.

Our world needs to be very careful indeed about the direction in which we are heading when we promote such impositions.  We must consider carefully the implications they have on our freedoms.  Once their loss is enshrined in law it will be hell trying to get them back.  It is then that we will have to be very afraid!  Do we want a police state for posterity?  Let us remember George Orwell's 1984!  It seems like we're even being prepared for it with the inundation of reality TV shows. 

Just as the “War on Terror” has radicalized Muslims, encroaching on their need to express their spirituality, politicization will radicalize them further.  No one is talking about why Muslim women actually wear the veil.  And if we are asking them to remove their veils, we also need to consider whether we would want to be made to wear the veil, or men, the jalaba, on visiting a Muslim country. Is it necessary to curtail people’s freedoms, or can we simply talk about the practicalities of the situation with the teaching assistant in West Yorkshire?  It doesn’t take Einstein to realize that this ill-considered national reaction will bring about further radicalization, as does any perceived threat.

In a piece written and posted on the internet on the 29th August of this year, James Hope and James Rogers attempt to offer a solution to the identity crisis in which Britain finds itself:

“The paradigm shift from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘monoculturalism’ or ‘zeroculturalism’ is well overdue.  How, though, does Britain…reach a new consensus?  Here, a new dynamic nationalism may hold the answer as long as it is not based on ethnic and closed values… A national identity…forged from open and democratic values – on which this country, above all others, can claim to be based – might fulfill this unifying role, providing the glue with which to re-energize the whole nation – creating a common purpose and leading to a more effective form of integration to bond all parts of British society together.  That is a ‘civic nationalism’ which is forward-looking and progressive instead of backward-looking and insular.”

A very honourable proposition!  But it doesn’t take into consideration the obstacles that have blocked the process of real integration; that will promote true multiculturalism.  Instead of suggesting that we abandon multiculturalist efforts, the host nation must stop wallowing in self-pity about the ‘ingratitude’ of immigrants as they acknowledge that they are not scroungers, but contributors, and that human beings have a mutual moral obligation to each other.  

We need to continue with the efforts of multiculturalism; even those efforts which appear tokenistic.  With future generations, they will become more genuine as years of practice embed them in the human psyche: a progression that only time can handle.  This is what will kill the demons such as institutional racism: the demon that haunts multiculturalism and hinders the pervasion of its impact.  Multiculturalism is a good thing and integration is its soul.  Assimilation is something else: something connected, but something that should never be demanded.  Integration must be demanded, but the desire to assimilate should only ever be a personal choice.

1st November 2006
Integration or Assimilation?
By Lawna Elayn Tapper