News and Comment

National identity, integration and preventing violent extremism

Wednesday 6 October 2010

In this post OPM associate fellow Sanah Sheikh explores the complex issue of why Muslim communities in England can often feel excluded from the ‘English’ national identity, and looks at examples of where the two have been successfully reconciled.

I was talking to Geraint Evans, Community Resilience Manager at Newham Council, about the possible future of cohesion and the Prevent strategy and we landed upon the topic of national identity. Geraint, being a Muslim convert from Wales, said that Muslims in Wales find it very easy to identify with being Welsh and take great pride in their fluency in the Welsh language.

In fact, Welsh Muslims enjoy having a plethora of fluid identities, all of which define who they are. The same can be said of Muslims in Scotland. Alongside a strong sense of attachment to their home countries, Muslims in Scotland are fiercely proud of everything that makes them Scottish. To a certain extent this is also true of Muslims in the United States, although of course recent events are unlikely to help maintain this feeling.

Why can ‘Englishness’ feel like an alien concept to Muslim communities in England?

It seems that the situation in England is a lot more complex. Although place and citizenship surveys report high levels of belonging among Muslim communities, these findings can be misleading as they do not account for how people interpret these questions or the fact that a large proportion of Muslims are excluded due to poor English language skills.

In-depth qualitative research with Muslim communities can be more helpful. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted research with Muslim migrants in Bradford, Birmingham and the London borough of Newham – three areas in England where there are very high proportions of Muslims (download a PDF copy of the report).

The study found that although Muslims did feel a sense of affinity with their local area, they also showed greater identification with people living in their countries of origin than with those living in England. Additionally, a study by the Institute of Community Cohesion with young Muslims in the London borough of Waltham Forest found that what unites Muslims in the borough is their Muslim identity and a sense of isolation from white communities.

What does Englishness or Britishness mean?

This begs several questions: what is it about being English that makes it difficult for Muslim communities, and perhaps other communities, to think of the English as ‘my people’? What makes it so hard for these communities to identify with and value English national identity? Is being English perceived as being in conflict with being Muslim in some way? Maybe citizenship and national identity have become something seen by these communities as mandated, imposed from above rather than allowed to grow organically?

The social researcher in me thinks we need to explore this further. Do we know what we mean by the terms Englishness, Britishness or what ‘shared values’ we’re talking about? Do different communities have different perceptions of what ‘being English’ means? What does being English mean in the context of people’s everyday lives? It’s only when we know what these terms mean to people can we begin to think about how national identity and citizenship can be fostered.

The important role that national identity plays in integrating communities and preventing all forms of violent extremism cannot be denied. Surely if you identify strongly with your countrymen and women radicalising messages that preach hatred and separateness will be difficult to digest.

Learning from good practice

Thankfully, there is good practice we can learn from. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s review of the Prevent agenda highlighted an interesting initiative delivered by an academic, Jahan Mahmood, in Birmingham. Mr Mahmood has been mentoring and working with disaffected young Muslims for a long time. He has a special interest in Muslim soldiery in Britain during the two world wars and his inspirational accounts of Muslim soldiers’ contributions have worked remarkably well in instilling a sense of pride and ‘British Muslim’ identity in young people. For some young people, it’s also helped them recognise the horrific and unacceptable nature of extremist messages.

It’s initiatives like these that need to be replicated. Not only will they tackle violent extremism but they will also contribute to the wider aim of integration, in the long term that is. As Ewan said in his post on integration and the Big Society, some communities need time and additional support before they are able to integrate in a meaningful way.

Mahmood’s initiative was funded by Positive Futures, a national community-based inclusion programme for young people which is managed by Catch 22.