Ideas Hub: Muslims, foreignness and the ‘integration’ debate – by Dr Sarah Hackett

By Myriam Francois|January 29, 2016|Ideas Hub|0 comments

Muslims, foreignness and the ‘integration’ debate 

by Dr Sarah Hackett

            Muslim minority communities have secured a firm position at the centre of political and public discourse in Britain in recent years. These ever-heated deliberations have centred upon, amongst other things, integration, multiculturalism, segregation, exclusion, identity, belonging, discrimination and extremism. Far too often, these debates have been driven by sensationalist and attention-grabbing agendas and headlines. Recently, these have included the Sun’s dangerous and misleading claim about British Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis, David Cameron’s heavily criticised proposals regarding face veils and Muslim women’s command of the English language, and the questioning of a 10-year old Muslim boy about terrorism by police in Lancashire.

There is no doubt that such headings and tactics have clear negative repercussions for social cohesion. Rather than promoting a sense of togetherness, unity and understanding, they create division, suspicion and fear, and further endorse an “us vs. them” mentality and rhetoric. Indeed someone casually glancing at the news headlines might be forgiven for subscribing to both the clash of civilizations theory, and to the notion that a British and a Muslim identity are somehow inherently at odds with each other. Perhaps most frustrating about this discourse are the everyday and numerous examples of integration and social cohesion that seem to go almost entirely unrecognised. We know, for example, that Muslims are as likely to feel a sense of belonging and loyalty to Britain as other religious groups, and that they have made huge advances regarding political membership, community leadership, and public recognition and influence. Mainstream Islam has successfully become integrated into British society.

My own work on the integration of Muslim minority communities in Britain seeks to go beyond overarching national-level debates and claims. My Manchester University Press monograph, entitled Foreigners, Minorities and Integration: The Muslim Immigrant Experience in Britain and Germany, which has recently been published in paperback, attempts to tease out the stories and experiences of the seldom talked about Muslim South Asians of Newcastle upon Tyne. The research addresses the socio-economic dimension of integration through an exploration of the employment, housing and education sectors, adopts a historical approach from the 1960s onwards, and draws a comparison with Turkish Muslims in the German city of Bremen.

There are two key findings that emerge from this research that can go some way towards challenging political and public anxieties regarding the integration of Muslims in Britain. Firstly, it argues that Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in Newcastle have often succeeded in fulfilling their long-term goals and aspirations, and have displayed high levels of self-determination and autonomy. In other words, their behavior and performances in the areas of employment, housing and education have often been marked by their pursuit of economic independence and higher wages, the importance awarded to home ownership and neighbourhood formation, and indicators of increasing educational achievement. Moreover, this success has often been the consequence of an understanding of and an interaction with their local “Geordie” surroundings, be it regarding their ability to partake in Tyneside’s peddler culture or their competence in utilising the housing market in order to suit their own long-term needs and ambitions.

Secondly, the book concludes that in no way does Islam act as a barrier to integration, but rather stresses the extent to which Newcastle’s South Asian Muslims have often adhered to pattern and traits exhibited by Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Britain, but also across Europe and the Western world. This is clearly not a story of incompatible polarised Muslim communities who deserve to be singled out because they sit at odds with mainstream twenty-first century British society. Although Newcastle is not a British microcosm and there are factors that could help explain why its Muslims have fared better than what has often been argued to be the case for Muslim minorities in Britain in general, it is evidence that not only is integration possible, but that it has been underway for some time.

Indeed the political and public debate in Britain needs to move beyond the “easy pickings” of face veils, language and counter-extremism ideologies. We need to shift away from what are often clear cases of victimisation, persecution and unhelpful stereotypes that lead to nothing but alienation. If the social cohesion agenda is to be at all effective, more needs to be done to address the everyday obstacles and difficulties many British Muslims face, and to debate how barriers to equality of opportunity might be overcome. Younger Muslim migrants growing up in Britain need to have the same life chances as their non-Muslim counterparts in education, employment, health, religious practice and representation, and space in which to blend their British and Muslim identities.

We should take comfort from the fact that Muslims have been living in Britain from at least as early as the seventeenth century and that Muslim migrants who arrived to Britain in greater numbers after the Second World War have taken great strides regarding social mobility, integration and carving out a secure, positive and active role for themselves in British society. There are many past, recent and on-going positive examples, such as those I encountered in Newcastle, which should be recognised and used to sketch out a framework for how to move forward. One of the greatest dangers of the current rhetoric and headlines is that they’re spoken and written in isolation from, and sometimes in ignorance of, what has often been a wider holistic and historical context of positive integration and social cohesion. Using educational and local community initiatives as a means in which to further develop a more balanced awareness and understanding of Islam and Muslims in Britain may go some way towards countering the culture of fear and suspicion in which we currently find ourselves.


Sarah Hackett is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Bath Spa University. She has published widely on immigration and integration in Europe, migration and religion, and Islam in Europe in historical perspective. She acts as an editor for the Journal of Migration History.

She tweets @SarahEHackett

Her latest book Foreigners, minorities and integration: The Muslim immigrant experience in Britain and Germany”  is out this month.




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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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