10 August 2018

How to have difficult conversations

By Sunder Katwala

“We must make sure that we do not duck the difficult conversations.”

That was how allies of Boris Johnson explained why the former Foreign Secretary was not minded to heed calls from his party chairman and the prime minister, to apologise over a Telegraph column in which he commented on how ridiculous women who wear the burka looked, while simultaneously arguing against any state intervention to ban them.

But does that not risk setting the bar rather low for a “difficult conversation”?

The great British burka debate is at least 12 years old now. It was 2006 when a rather more sober piece for his local newspaper from Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, set out why he asked constituents wearing the full veil to remove it to speak to him in his Blackburn constituency surgery.

Boris Johnson’s argument that the veil is not conducive to integration, but that it seems rather more French than British to go around legislating about what people should wear, is entirely commonplace among politicians. But it was the jibes about women making themselves look like bank robbers and pillar-boxes that got the column noticed.

I have lost count of how many times politicians tell their audience that they are not afraid to speak out on difficult issues. What follows this exercise in self-congratulation is usually a declaration that forced marriage and FGM must never be tolerated – a correct stance which almost nobody could disagree with. In other words, a not-particularly-difficult conversation.

How might those who claim to want to engage in “difficult conversations” actually do so? I suggest below five conversations that they could start with.

Beyond “them and us”: how does integration become an everybody issue?

Britain’s integration debate – like those across Europe – is very heavily focused on Muslim integration. That partially reflects concerns about ISIS presenting the biggest terrorist threat today – Irish people faced more discrimination, unfairly, during the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s ­– as well as a broader sense of more social distance from British Muslims.

Those challenges of Muslim integration cannot be ducked. Yet, if the integration debate becomes characterised by a “them and us” approach, it will risk furthering the divisions it sets out to address. “Why won’t the Muslims integrate like other minorities have?” may lead many young Muslims to wonder why they always seem to face extra hurdles to prove their allegiance and identity. We need to have a clear account of the demands of common citizenship in a liberal society, and apply those fairly.

How do we ensure consistency?

Consistency matters. The Jewish Chronicle rightly notes that there would be outrage at a national politician mocking the clothing of Hasidic Jews in the way that Boris did for some Muslim women.

Boris Johnson taking on women in burkas will not strike many people as an exercise in “punching up” rather than “punching down”. But his commitment to standing up for liberal values should now also entail a staunch defence of the Canadian government – under aggressive diplomatic pressure and sanctions from the Saudi government – for standing up for free speech and human rights.

Consistency is difficult. People are happy to challenge their political opponents but find it much harder to challenge their allies, which is what really matters. That is to put partisanship over the need to uphold anti-prejudice norms. We should only take people seriously, when they challenge examples of prejudice from opponents, if they do have a track record of challenging similar examples from their own in-group.

Groups like TellMama, the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies have set a good example during anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim prejudice rows, of the importance of solidarity, challenging prejudice against other groups as well as your own. This is a vital defence against opportunistic attempts to use these difficult debates to stoke prejudices.

How does our integration debate empower women?

The recurring cycle of this debate fuels a sense of “integration fatigue”: we go on, stuck in the same grooves, but does anything really change? One of the reasons that the integration debate can seem unbalanced  — a bit more glass-half-empty than is fair – is that integration, by its nature, can be largely invisible, while its absence sticks out like a sore thumb.

Take the remarkable yet unheralded shift since Jack Straw wrote about the burka in 2006. At that time, no British Asian woman had ever been elected to the House of Commons. Today, there are more ethnic minority women MPs than men.

There were four MPs – all male – from Britain’s Muslim population in 2015; today there are 15, including eight female Muslim MPs. They are Labour and Conservative, with different personal and career histories. None of them wears the burka, of course, like 99 per cent of Muslim women outside parliament.

Those expressing concern about women’s rights over the burka will surely want to make sure we have an integration debate in which there is a fair share of voice across genders and generations.

Minority communities have a younger demographic, on average. Half of British Muslims are under 26. If Boris Johnson does not want to duck the difficult conversation about integration, he should talk to mixed groups of sixth formers, so as to find out how young British women, from Muslim and other backgrounds, think politicians can help and hinder the debate we need on integration.

How do we break down casual prejudices – among those least likely to have social contact?

There is a much greater perception among the public of social distance – of “otherness” – towards British Muslims than other minorities. Casual prejudice towards Muslims has considerably more mainstream reach than other forms of prejudice: over a third of people say they would be “uncomfortable” with a Muslim prime minister, compared to one in five people feeling the same way about an ethnic minority prime minister.

There is a significant generation gap: young people have more positive attitudes, not least because they have grown up in more mixed classrooms. But that means that integration efforts in schools in diverse areas are not going to bridge the generational and geographic divides.

So political leadership matters here. Challenging the perceptions of the readers of newspapers – who, for example, overestimate the proportion of Muslims in the population by a factor of three — may be more difficult than pandering to them, but it would make a positive contribution to defending liberalism by pushing back prejudices.

Are we prepared to invest anything in integration?

The core difficult question for politicians on integration is this: are they prepared to move from rhetoric to reality?

Politicians seem much happier generating headlines about burkas and oaths of allegiance, and the importance of people speaking English. Yet we have still never had a proper integration strategy in this country.

The Government’s Green Paper is an important step in the right direction – there will be pilots in five action areas, including Blackburn, Bradford, Peterborough, Walsall and Waltham Forest. It remains to be seen whether this turns into a national strategy, or whether it gets crowded out by all of the pressures of Brexit. It is difficult to define a practical agenda for integration in a liberal society – but maybe we could give it a try.

These are just a handful of the genuinely difficult conversations that we need to have if we are truly to make integration work — but which we are currently not having.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.