New Migration Realities

We can’t simply dismiss concerns about integration as racist

8 December 2016

It's time to rethink the way we use terms such as ethnicity, identity, culture and race

Dilwar Hussain

Whatever one makes of Brexit and the recent success of Mr Trump – including how similar or dissimilar they are – the two phenomena appear to indicate a growing sense of uncertainty among people who feel they may no longer have a place of value in society. Those who feel that somehow they have been ‘left behind’.

The rise of rightwing politics and discourse is also noticeable in the backdrop, including those on the far and extreme right. The Danish Freedom party (DFP), the Front National in France and the UK Independence party (Ukip) all seem to have a greater influence than was anticipated. Along with their sense of populism (plain-speaking, anti-elite, anti-establishment discourse) and nativism, a common feature seems to be a strong scepticism, if not dislike, of ‘Muslims’.

Far-right parties portray themselves as representing the ‘man on the street’ against the elite, who have ‘betrayed the nation’ by opening its borders. This is not just about a voter base that should be dismissed as racist, or, in reality, even rightwing (a significant element of the far-right success lies in attracting votes from the left and centre). They are often from working-class backgrounds, but bolstered by educated middle-class voters who now seem to be joining ranks, perhaps driven less by economic pressures and more by an instinct to preserve national identity or out of fear of losing some of the values they deem threatened.

Immigration has increasingly become a central issue in such debates. Immigrants are seen as threats: it is argued they drain state resources and perhaps undermine the national fabric. However, the discussion has also shifted its focus to the meaning of integration. Is it the case that certain groups – such as Muslims – are inherently incompatible with modern liberal values and therefore can never integrate?

Integration is often talked about in a somewhat slanted and politicised manner. It is most often used (especially by rightwing populist parties) in relation to groups that are seen as a problem, for example the need to ‘integrate Muslims’. Even where the data for certain groups may show a strong case of social and cultural isolation, residential segregation, allegiance to other countries abroad, highly conservative social attitudes, and so on, we tend not to dwell on the integration concerns of those groups if they are not seen to be a threat.

Nevertheless integration is an important and necessary subject for us to think about. A nation state will always need a binding, uniting national narrative. Every nation needs to tell its children a story of who they are and such foundational ‘myths’ are important in creating a sense of common belonging and citizenry, something vital to the integrity of modern nation states.

There are some important challenges to overcome. Just take three for now – first, there is communitarianism, and the adversarial sense of ‘my community’ above the national whole; how do we move beyond that as a time of intense identity politics? Second, there is the hold of religious and cultural teachings that emerged in a different time and place and need to be adapted for life in a modern western culture. A third point could be about equality and discrimination which links to a sense of belonging and to the success (or failure) of social mobility. If well-educated and deserving Bangladeshi girls, for example, get discriminated against in the workplace, then that interrupts the flow of social mobility, which is key to the integration process.

We need to rethink the way we use terms such as ethnicity, identity, culture and race. They are often heavily laden with a sense of being connected with ‘minorities’. What about (white) majority ethnicity and identity? (It seems the people addressing such concerns are mostly on the far right of the political spectrum). Furthermore, when we talk about ‘Muslim integration’, how useful is the generic ‘Muslim’ label? Can the experience of Pakistani, Gujarati, Turkish, Somali and Syrian Muslims really be the same? Each group arrived at different times, in different contexts, with different levels of social capital. What about secular and strictly religious Muslims; or liberals and fundamentalists? If we are going to talk about and analyse ‘Muslim’ integration, we need to be much more nuanced.

Terms such as multiculturalism and integration tend to divide opinion, but there appears to be much more convergence when there is discussion of what people actually want to see: an open and tolerant society that is respectful of difference. A nation that values equality and also has a confident sense of national identity.

We must take these issues seriously and tackle the public’s concerns around immigration, the economy, labour market competition, cultural diversity and feeling ‘left behind’. We need to find common ground to move forward together. Part of the problem is that societies in the west have witnessed rapid multilevel change over the last 50 years – cultural shifts, structural shifts in politics and within families, a substantial change in the nature of the economy, etc. It is no surprise that people feel they can ‘no longer recognise their own country’. But is this really down to the levels of immigration that can often be counted in single-figure percentages? We need a more sensible and sober discussion and much stronger leadership than politicians (particular those in the centre and the left) and leaders have dared to display.

This work is supported by the Barrow Cadbury Fund. Its migration programme aims to promote an immigration system that is fair to both migrants and established residents and a policy and public debate on migration and integration that is based on shared values as well as evidence.

Image credit: Harriet Hadfield / Shutterstock.com