Ethnic minority communities in many parts of Britain have become critically isolated from the mainstream, according to a government-backed review into opportunity and integration.
The Casey Review, published in December, says predominantly Muslim communities are becoming increasingly divided from British society. The Review notes with urgency that a more concerted effort is needed to redress this situation, however key recommendations including an increased emphasis on British history and values in the school curriculum, along with an “integration oath” to be sworn by new migrants upon arrival into the UK, reveal a decidedly draconian approach.
Division and isolation cannot be considered separate from national and global trends which show increasing hostility towards minority ethnic communities. Integration is necessary, but Dame Louise Casey’s plan is lopsided, requiring maximal effort from a barely captive audience of ethnic minorities, and virtually nothing from the non-immigrant British population. Her recommendations are intentionally oriented to avoid any discussion about what can be done to improve British public perception of migrant communities. Despite admission that much of the media is often correctly perceived as having an anti-Muslim bias, her report does not consider a change in the attitudes of the white British population towards Muslim communities as high on the integration agenda, even though it also acknowledges that around 64 percent of British people claim that anything they know about Islam comes from the media.
The report aims for ethnic minorities — in practice, particularly Islamic communities — to fashion for themselves a kind of compound identity which nominally preserves elements of religious or cultural significance but mostly conforms to a pre-given standard of British values around which “all can unite”. Its ambition seems quite clear: to secularise these communities so that foreign religious and cultural values are reduced to the status of etiolated relics devoid of any meaningful significance. Casey attempts to justify this approach by repeatedly highlighting the most extreme cases of repression in an attempt to drum up moralising concern. In practice, the proposals in her review seem neither capable of resolving issues of repression, nor entirely limited in scope to exclusively curbing elements in Islamic culture seen as repressive. Some proposals canvassed by the review, such as encouraging a positive emphasis on British history in schools, seem both unnecessary to finding common ground and deliberately antagonistic. Britain’s historical track-record of exploitation and violence against many of these same cultural minorities means that such a policy is not only unlikely to convince them that they can be represented by a British identity conceived in this way, but also suggests to these groups that Britain is triumphantly unapologetic for its own exploitative history.
On a practical level, Casey appears to have grossly misapprehended the sacredness of certain beliefs and practices to minority groups, leading her to assume that more secular British values provide an appropriate surrogate. We could simply conclude here that the proposed scheme for integration is ill-conceived and ultimately doomed to failure. Yet, we should not ignore the fact that the Review plays in accompaniment to a broader political conversation in which questions about immigration are seen to captivate the public mind in a way that no other political issue does. Responses to the proposal for an ‘integration oath’ show that 66 percent of British people support the idea, with only 19 percent declaring that they were definitively against. It is well worth calling into question which audience Casey’s review is intended for. Much less than simply trying to achieve integration by the best available means, she also appears to be balancing into the equation a public desire to see the ‘migrant problem’ being dealt with.
It’s at this point where the idea of swearing an oath becomes especially relevant, since it is an inherently performative way of speaking. For an oath, it matters that a specific person is making a declaration, and it also matters that they are seen to be making such a declaration. Sure, maybe there are people who actively do wish to adopt British culture as a part of their identity. For these people, swearing an oath of integration may well be a triumphant gesture in affirmation of the new identity they have crafted for themselves. But these are patently not the people the report is concerned with: the people who need encouragement to adopt British values through the compulsory swearing of an oath are those who wouldn’t freely do so if they had the choice. This means that the mechanism underlying the oath is essentially coercive, it stipulates conditional entry to the UK as an enthusiastic affirmation of a state which you may justifiably have mixed sentiments about.
Ultimately then, making people swear an integration oath is a show of force, and indeed this isn’t entirely unprecedented. One of the more controversial terms of Irish independence from Britain was that representatives in the Irish Dáil would have to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown before taking their seats. The value of such a policy in this case was one of saving face: conceding Irish independence would make PM Lloyd-George unpopular both in parliament and amongst the British public, but having a perspicuous signal from Irish Republicans that they were still subservient to the British Crown could reduce the impact of this blow substantially by preserving the underlying power dynamic. I’m suggesting that something similar may easily be true of the proposed integration oath: forcing migrants to symbolically relinquish their cultural values placates nationalist sentiment by rendering them meek and docile; unable to assert their own identity.
We can also see the mechanism of an oath as intended to produce an internal response of compliance amongst migrants. Sociologist Erving Goffman describes how — in institutions such as prisons or military barracks — subjects are made to comply through the implementation of a battery of techniques employed to rob them of a sense of individual agency. One such technique is to require subjects to ritually signal enthusiastic approval for the institution even when it may be the deepest source of frustration in their lives. In this way, authentic expressions of disapproval are muted whilst subjects are simultaneously required to perform in a way which runs directly counter to their personal convictions. In turn, this begets a learned helplessness. By wearing objects or clothing, reading statements, or making gestures which I can’t recognise as my own my sense of autonomy and power is eroded. Not only does this have a profoundly negative psychological impact, but it may also cause the kind of frustration that leads to outbursts, because I cannot identify myself with what I am being forced to do.
To put this in context, we should consider minority communities as they relate to Britain. These groups are routinely scapegoated for a host of social problems, robbed of their humanity, branded as criminals, and often at direct risk of physical harm. Britain’s legacy of exploitation and reckless interventionism has left many parts of the world unstable or economically underdeveloped, it has become prosperous through the organised plunder of the states from which its ethnic and migrant communities originate. In light of these facts, many will justifiably feel that they are not best represented by a British identity, at least until this history is acknowledged, and these attitudes have changed. Imposing upon these people that they must swear an oath to integrate to a society with these values irregardless of the fact that they are directly confronted by them will be deeply humiliating and is only likely to drive further reclusion rather than integration.
We should seek to avoid being misled by Dame Casey’s staging of her review as the delivery of an unvarnished truth. For all her rhetoric about the need to face up to “difficult problems”, she consistently evades any inconvenient discussion about how British attitudes must change to accommodate our minority communities. Her glib dismissal of the idea that integration should be a two-way street makes it luminously clear: she does not believe that minority cultures deserve equal right to representation as majority ones. Her plan is not integration, but the submission of one culture to another, something which should strike us as unacceptable.