By Abdul Siddique
For many years our approach to encouraging community integration has been based largely on an assumptionist and imperialist model .This I believe to be a system that conveniently lumps communities under the widest possible category in order to easily manage and negotiate with them. It negates the organic, complex and evolving natures of the very individuals that constitute the delicate fabric of our community. This approach has exacerbated the deep-rooted divisions within and between communities that has had ramifications till this day.
Alongside the categories of race, a category most often used to deal with communities is faith. The role of interfaith groups that represent their respective members at the state level cannot be understated.They play an important role in building social capital (as my research outlined: see MPhil community cohesion research in the resources section of website). Yet in the same breath, there has been for too long an overbearing focus on such representation at the state level. This has been to the detriment of those individual members of society that have become increasingly non-religious and secular. This latter point is grounded in data from consecutive polls and censuses that have revealed this great nation of ours progressively becoming a largely secular society.
In practice this has meant that this secular contingent does not see its interests represented at any level. They assume that a coffee and cake between an imam, rabbi, Reverand and Pundit does not serve to address the social exclusion, disenfranchisement, deprivation and stagnant mobility they experience, even though they may at times loosely identify with a particular religion.
It is the constant bubbling of such social disenfranchisement that led to the 2001 riots in Northern towns and coined the term community cohesion, even though inter-faith relations had been strong in the affected towns and cities. It was argued that multiculturalism had failed with its ‘hackney-eyed formula of saris and samosas’. Therefore the misguided belief that certain faith communities (in this case Muslim) were disproportionately represented and allocated resources, fuelled the flames of division and social unrest particularly in Oldham and Burnley. Such misunderstandings further continue to feed the extreme right or ultra-right (to coin the American term) and gives them much needed oxygen to this day.
Towards a more pragmatic solution
The solution therefore is to acknowledge ‘community’ to be a complex, fluid and organic structure that constitute individuals who have their own unique, complex identities, issues and concerns. Measures to acknowledge, incorporate and embed these complex dimensions in to existing representative structures should be drawn up. Further the notion of communities constituting complex, unequal and multi-dimensional layers have been bolstered by successive governments policy directives as far back as Thatcher. This could be an unfortunate consquence of the capitalist machine we are all part of. Thatcher famously endorsed inequality by encouraging ‘our children grow, some taller then others’.
The central premise of capitalism since time in memorial has been that competition raises quality and reduces prices (that we are led to believe is good for everyone). We are led to believe that the wave of prosperity this brings will benefit us all just as ‘a rising tide will raise all boats’. Unfortunately there is a wide gap between this rhetoric and the reality on the ground. Paradoxically such prosperity has not been the case with the inequality gap widening repeatedly over decades that has put further strain on the social, cultural, economic, educational and political identities of individual members of our communities.
Therefore I maintain working at a micro or grass roots level, ensuring the views of normal everyday members of our community are represented, proactively involving such multi-dimensional individuals In our core decision-making processes and begin to bridge the stark divide that has been left to widen. By involvement, we need to avoid tokenism that has eroded trust in many government public participation initiatives that may be branded superficial. Tokenistic involvement (to clear any ambiguity) is this; the Local Authority building a community centre, setting all activities that will run and then involving the community in choosing the colour of the paint that will go on the walls. Such Tokenism only serves to alienate those whom we wish to bring to the centre of our society.
I also believe that focusing on individual community members at a micro-level brings further benefits too. I maintain that we all as individual rational actors,have responsibilities too to proactively build cohesion. How many of us actually know our neighbours well? How many of us have friends from other ethnic, religious, socio backgrounds different to ours? Remember integration is a two way process despite the one-way rhetoric and the notion that ‘they don’t want to integrate’ when the resident population, may prefer to live in gated communities and does not genuinely intend to want to reach out and learn about the culture and experiences of a new diaspora is also naïve. After all is it not in our nature to connect?
Many of the issues I have raised here are more evolutionary then revolutionary, and were echoed in my initial research in 2008 where a particular distinction the cohort made was between ‘superficial’ and ‘grass roots interactions’. Indeed this thinking has crystalised the shape in which the foundation operates.
I strongly believe that if community cohesion is to succeed then the opinion of those that reside within our most deprived, excluded and socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods need to be sought foremost. Part of the problem we now face in respect of the state of our community relations is a direct result of the folly of our policy makers. Largely, advised by statisticians who talk in algorithms and live in statistical bubbles, their quantitative methods to measure a largely qualitative phenomenon has proved fruitless. This distant approach to policy making has proven to be disastrous and it is high time for a paradigm shift and step change in the conversation between state, policy and population.
My depth of feeling on the issue is palatable and I remain a firm believer in the age-old maxim in order to make things right we need to explore what has gone wrong.
all is not lost !
Finally I intend not to burden the reader with the paralysis of my analysis on the issue and end this article on a positive note. I have been elated to see very positive and commendable efforts being made throughout this great nation of ours in the direction I outline in this article.
Many of my friends, colleagues and partners through out the country have shared with me their projects, collaborations and experiences on their respective journeys promoting community cohesion. From grass root food banks, to community circles encouraging neigbourhood residents to engage with isolated elderly citizens on a Rota basis. From grass root projects mobilizing neighbourhood and community residents to volunteer to keep libraries, police stations, parks and children’s centres open to sincere community-led infrastructure projects. This clearly demonstrates how love, compassion, resolve and resilience are golden threads that run through the very fabric of our diverse society. To conclude, Robert Putnam’s pioneering work on social capital Bowling Alone: The Collapse and revival of American community serves to reminds us of the peril we may face if we seek not to engage all members of our neighbourhoods and communities in a cohesive narrative and shared sense of belonging.
‘people divorced from community, occupation and association are first and foremost among the supporters of terrorism’
Abdul @ flowhesion foundation