5 June 2017

Will politicians finally start taking integration seriously?

By Sunder Katwala

That the short campaign of a snap General Election has been twice interrupted by periods of mourning for those killed by terrorist violence, in Manchester and London, exemplifies dramatically how the increased frequency of Islamist terrorist attacks is changing our public debates about extremism and integration.

It is just two years since London marked the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. Many Londoners took time out on their way to work to walk the final stop of their journey on the tube or the bus. These small, poignant personal acts of remembrance also conveyed London’s confidence that its “keep calm and carry on” spirit had prevailed.  Everybody in London knew that terror could one day strike again – but it did also help a great deal that it had not done so.

Over the decade after 9/11, only twice, in Madrid in 2003 and London in 2005, had Islamist terror claimed more than ten lives in Europe. That this has happened another seven times across Europe since 2015 is bound to change how we respond to extremism.

For some, the first instinct when news of a tragedy breaks is now to angrily denounce those who lay flowers for the dead, or who gather together in crowded city squares to observe the silence together, for not being nearly angry enough in the wake of murderous violence. Attacking “virtue signalling” has become the new stock-in-trade for those hoping to turn social media infamy into a media career. Often combined with calls for internment and mass-detention without trial, this often looks more like a counter-ritual of “vice-signalling” rather than any meaningful effort to make a serious contribution to the debate about how to deal with terrorism. The angry dismissal of almost any act of empathy, human kindness or common decency could hardly have been more out-of-step with the public mood in Manchester this past fortnight.

Nobody thinks that flowers, vigils or pop concerts are, in themselves, going to eradicate the ideology of Islamist extremism. But that does not mean that Manchester’s response did not matter. Many other parents will have shared my experience the week before last, when I failed to find any adequate words to explain to pre-teenage children what could drive a young man to carrying out a murderous attack on families who had gone to enjoy a pop concert. The live broadcast on BBC1 last night of Manchester’s memorial concert had no answers to that question either – how could it? – yet the music and the warmth of the young audience spoke for themselves about why we respond the way we do.

Chris Martin of Coldplay singing “Live Forever” with Liam Gallagher has almost certainly not dealt a demoralising death-blow to the ISIS death cult. But Manchester’s message was for us, not them. Perhaps, to invert an old jihadi extremist’s slogan, Manchester’s message was “we love life more than you love death”.

Those seeking to terrify our society, cheered by foreign media reports that Britain is “cowed” and “reeling” after recent attacks, will have found that hard to reconcile with images of 50,000 young people dancing and singing. When people of all faiths and none unite to show how all of us in Britain mourn those lost and condemn those responsible, as they did in Manchester and will in London tonight, the narrative of a divided society in which British Muslims can never feel fully at home looks ever more tendentious.

If the pop stars played to perfection the part that they can, showing how life can and must go on, the politicians face a considerably harder job, of setting out what needs to change in order to respond effectively.

Every party will use the sombre final three days of the General Election campaign to stress its dedication to tackling what it understands to be the causes of extremism – though there are some important political disagreements about what priorities that leads to.

It is unlikely that there is enough time before polling day for a no-holds-barred discussion that deepens both political engagement and public understanding of the causes of extremism and the practical actions which can address them. That debate will need to continue beyond 8 June.

The Prime Minister hit on something important in saying this will “require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations”. Muslim communities are used to being challenged to show they are doing more.

But the political parties will need to ensure this also includes conversations that they themselves find difficult too: Labour will be keen to talk about police numbers and foreign policy but is quieter on the changes needed in communities at home. Conservative ministers have a tough message for community leaders in Blackburn or Tower Hamlets but may need more courage to take the same message on trade missions to Saudi Arabia. And closer to home, they will need to ensure that commitments to parental choice in schools are balanced with commitments to tackle the segregation of some communities.

An effective integration strategy will need to encompass issues and areas much broader, more proactive and more positive than counter-extremism alone. If we think that all we need is a “counter-narrative” then we are accepting that ISIS sets the terms of debate to which we much all respond. Our own calls to action should be about what being part of this society means, about the things we share in common, about the values we say we want to uphold, and the things we do together to make that a reality.

A more integrated Britain would be a more confident, more inclusive and fairer society – one in which more people were confident that we live in a society of equal opportunity and shared belonging.

But we have never had a properly-implemented integration strategy in this country and that need to change after 8 June. Integration priorities should include promoting universal proficiency and fluency in the English language; narrowing the gaps in employment opportunities for women in ethnic and faith minority groups; ensuring that no child goes to school in Britain without meaningful contact with their peers across ethnic, faith and class boundaries. Those are likely to prove good long-term investments in inclusion and integration, which could make a contribution to keeping us safe too – but they should not be pursued for their anti-extremism potential alone.

Such an integration agenda – by definition – can’t be about any single ethnic or faith minority community: it has to be about all of us. Integration could play a big part to play in tackling extremism – but to achieve that, we need to set our sights higher than that.

If we don’t want to play into the hands of extremism, then the key is to remember this: if its not an “all of us” agenda, then it isn’t really about integration at all.

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future