Ripostes: Nohoudh scholar Fatima Begum Rajina responds to Trevor Phillips (OBE)’s opening statement at the SOAS-Nohoudh Muslim Integration Conference- engaging with the discourse 2015
Nohoudh scholar Fatima Begum Rajina responds to Trevor Phillips (OBE)’s opening statement at the SOAS-Nohoudh Muslim Integration Conference- engaging with the discourse 2015.
Trevor Phillips was the keynote speaker for the SOAS-Nohoudh Muslim Integration conference on the first day – the full speech can be found here.
Interestingly, within the first paragraph of Trevor Phillips’ speech he shares the following: ‘I don’t do this sort of thing very much these days; much as I enjoyed being Chair of the EHRC there are many things in public life I was glad to leave behind – being confused on the bus with Trevor Macdonald, David Lammy and Howard from the Halifax.’
To start a conference on integration and relate this to an audience eagerly anticipating the start to a 2-day conference is rather, to put it mildly, gloomy. I say gloomy because it, probably, reminded many in the audience for being mistaken for someone else because they are also or look like (insert whatever floats your boat here). We recently observed something similar on ITV when Lenny Henry received his knighthood and whilst speaking to a journalist we are suddenly exposed to a dancing Ainsley Harriott. One could take such a statement with a pinch of salt or it demonstrates a particular aspect of integration: that a person of colour will always be part of a collective, stripping them off their individuality. Additionally, despite being a well-known public figure you can never escape this collectivism.
As I continued to carefully listen to Phillips’ speech he addressed an issue pertinent to many discussions taking place across the globe, following the attacks in Beirut, Baghdad and Paris: ‘In the twenty-first century, the human species will face two overarching questions: First – how do we live with our planet? And second – how do we live with each other? I have no doubt that of the two dilemmas, the second is less tractable.’ The problem that arises with his latter question is he refers to it as ‘less tractable’, arguing that it is not easily managed or controlled. Managed and controlled by whom? He uses the ethnic diversity in Guyana, where he grew up, as an example of how there are ‘tantalising possibilities of diversity – and the ghastly consequences of the absence of generous toleration.’ The issue with the term ‘toleration’ is that it implies one quietly, begrudgingly puts up with other people, which I do not believe is the way to live with diversity. The ability to respect and accept different belief systems, moral and ethical code of conducts should be the encouraged path rather than merely ‘tolerating’ someone. This ‘tolerance’ causes nothing but resentment and provides grounds for prejudices and stereotypes to grow because of the lack of genuine engagement with different people. He recognises integration as ‘a learned behaviour’ and that ‘that learning is inherited – or not’ because ‘integration isn’t an automatic human response to diversity.’ I’d agree and argue that it may not be an automatic response but one can’t erase the previous experiences of those who travelled into Britain as colonial subjects. And if Phillips is arguing that integration is a two way street, then it is necessary to acknowledge such experiences, particularly from those perceived to be the ‘native’ population.
Phillips draws our attention to mainland Europe and the rise in the far-right groups and many even winning seats in their respective countries. He asserts: ‘I think we can say that whatever our problems, we would not exchange them for those of our neighbours right now.’ This is a rather dangerous way to discuss the notion of integration, as he is relying on the creation of the ‘other’ in order to demonstrate that we have it slightly better here in the UK. This argument tends to create a false sense of moral justification, seeking validation by observing the ‘other’ as more fallacious than us. In order to tackle issues at home, we should not look ‘over there’ to seek some form of validation; uncomfortable conversations about the intersection of racism, classism, Islamophobia and sexism and how they can be used as markers that excludes one from social mobility. As the comedian Stephen K Amos notes in his 2007 stand up comedy performance at Live at the Apollo: ‘My main goal is my own TV show because in reality this isn’t all that. But as we are all aware the BBC have a diversity policy and apparently I’ve got to wait for Lenny Henry to die.’ In my own research I have met people who spoke of a ‘glass ceiling’, which is preventing them from climbing to the top.
One aspect of Phillips’ speech that caught my attention was when he started laying down three areas he considers necessary for the every-day integration and I’ll be address one of them in this paragraph. The first of the three areas is: culture and manners. He makes the following observation when he lifts his head and looks at the audience: ‘The signals of integration or its absence can be very subtle, and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong, e.g. what are the rules about wearing a poppy? Few other than me wearing it here but in MK this afternoon, I suspect, the reverse will be true.’ Now this instantly caught my attention, as I was one of the many in the audience not wearing a poppy. Is wearing a poppy really a sign of one’s integration? Or is the onus on non-white people to wear it to show their ‘loyalty’ to their country? This begs the question of where white people fit in who disagree with the poppy. Can one only participate in the remembrance of soldiers’ contributions to WW1 by wearing a plastic flower on one’s clothes?
The above are mere reflections of his speech and there’s much more that can be said, scrutinised and critiqued but the key issues that stood out for me personally were the ones I hoped to address in this specific piece. One thing I am certain about is that integration is one of the highly contested and racialised ways of speaking about Britain’s BME communities. The onus has almost always been on the BME communities to prove themselves, with very little focus on the ‘English’ communities’ attitude towards their fellow Brits. Or should they be known as Englishmen/women? Nevertheless, what we need to speak of is conviviality, not integration, whereby the latter assumes a frivolous dichotomy where those coming from outsider will always be categorised as the ‘other’. The values of respect, acceptance and dignity are crucial in this debate and not merely encouraging ‘tolerance’, which has caused much resentment.