The importance of faith in Britain’s social integration debate

Richard Reddie

3rd January 2019

From a socio-political and religious perspective, 2016 was noted for two events that have had far reaching ramifications for this country. The first came halfway through the year, and was Britain’s momentous (but narrow) decision to quit the EU, which resulted, among other issues, in a spike in hate crime, especially among those from minority ethnic/migrant and religious communities. The second came almost six months later in the form of the Casey Review, the long-awaited, but much-criticised report into ‘opportunity and integration (in isolated and deprived communities) in Britain’.

While the Brexit vote supposedly revolved around a range of political and economic issues, immigration, in the form of EU migrants, dominated most conversations and proved the deciding factor. Conversely, some commentators accused the Casey Review of scapegoating (Muslim) immigrant communities hailing from outside the EU. The report also appeared to reinforce certain prevailing attitudes toward immigration and ethnic diversity in the United Kingdom. These twin factors came on the back of the then coalition Government’s 2014 policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ towards those who were considered illegal immigrants. Such a policy undoubtedly created suspicion and animus toward migrant communities, both the more established and newer ones.

While Windrush Day celebrates what migrant communities have brought to the UK, ‘Independence Day’ revolves around Britain being able to close its doors to most forms of immigration

It can be argued that there had been an agreed consensus that immigration and (ethnic) diversity were assets to Britain, even if they presented challenges in finding ways to forge genuine unity in that diversity. The Brexit vote and Casey Review arguably demolished that consensus, resulting in much head-scratching and soul-searching in equal measure. The irony regarding the Brexit vote is that it took place on 23 July 2016, a date which MEP and leading Brexiteer, Nigel Farage dubbed ‘Independence Day’. This so called ‘Independence Day’ now falls the day before ‘Windrush Day’, which the Government declared a national day celebrating the contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants to this country. While Windrush Day celebrates what migrant communities have brought to the UK, ‘Independence Day’ revolves around Britain being able to close its doors to most forms of immigration.

This vexing immigration/integration nexus has also led to a number of fresh strategies on integration and social cohesion, such as the Mayor of London’s first ever social integration conference, which brought together leaders and Mayors from across Europe to ‘discuss how to build better, more unified communities’.  Chief among the speakers was City Hall’s new Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement.

The role of faith in this conversation is often seen through negative lenses. For instance, the Casey Review tended to focus on Islam in ways that were unhelpful. For one, it reductively posited this world faith within the confines of certain South Asian heritage communities. This is despite the fact that the Office for National Statistics census from 2011 shows that over a third of all Muslims in the UK are non-Asian. Indeed, my research for my book Black Muslims in Britain revealed the full extent of the growth and development of Islam within Black British communities.

Second, the review appeared to present these mainly South Asian heritage communities as a homogeneous entity that is fixated with self-segregation and prone to adhering to archaic cultural practices.

Interestingly, the review appeared at a time when certain far-right organisations have been arguing that immigrants are a threat to this country’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Groups such as Britain First seek to conflate English/British nationalism and patriotism with Christianity, in ways that are troubling at best, and racist at worst, and which totally exclude the genuine ethnic diversity that exists within UK Christianity. Their viewpoint also abrogates the crucial role that Black Christians in particular have made in reviving the fortunes of Christianity in this country. One of the appalling tragedies of the Windrush scandal of 2018 was the way many of these Christian men and women, who had lived in the UK for decades, found themselves victims of the Government’s aforementioned hostile environment policy and were vulnerable to deportation.

The Casey Review, the post-Brexit conversations and the furore over the Windrush scandal downplay the contributions of diverse communities

The Casey Review, the post-Brexit conversations and the furore over the Windrush scandal, invariably downplay the contributions of those at the sharp end of this conundrum – the diverse communities themselves. Although this ‘about us, without us’ scenario is unproductive and outmoded, it still characterises far too much of our engagement with BAME faith communities. And while it is important to gather statistics and generate metrics, there is no substitute for hearing from the actual people. One of the scandals of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster was the way the voices of this largely immigrant, and to a substantial extent Muslim community were constantly ignored by those in authority. Sadly, their concerns about their tinder-box tower block were only heard after so many had lost their lives in the fire. That is why it is important to listen to the Muslim and Black voices in Daniel Nilsson DeHanas’ excellent London Youth, Religion, and Politics. The book’s in-depth interviews with young (South Asian) Muslims and African-Caribbean/Africans (Christians) from the Brick Lane and Brixton areas respectively, are enlightening and refreshing and cast a different perspective on what has become the standard, hackneyed narrative on immigrant communities.

What this book and several others have shown is the importance of faith, not only in people’s lives, but as a catalyst to bring about change in communities. They also show how faith can unite communities rather than divide them. For instance, within Black communities, many of those cultural institutions that once held them together – community centres, social associations, recreational clubs, ‘pardner’ (an informal money saving scheme) et al. – no longer enjoy their once-vaunted influence. The one constant are the Black Majority Churches, which remain the mainstay within these communities. Attendance within these congregations is in rude health, and much like the mosques, gurdwaras, synagogues or temples, a great deal of the communities’ brain trust is found in these places of worship. A similar argument can be made for newer communities such as the rising numbers of Poles who have transformed the fortunes of the Catholic Church in the UK.

Outside of the confines of faith groups, there are few opportunities to access segmented communities with whom one could pursue the social integration agenda

Any search on Google will reveal a plethora of reports, conferences and think-tanks dedicated to community cohesion and social integration; the practicalities of bringing actual communities together in significant and meaningful ways is proving harder. How do you get those originating from different places to share the same spaces? My argument is that outside of the confines of faith groups, there are few means or opportunities to access large sections of segmented communities with whom one could pursue the social integration agenda. Religious groups, who invariably have an intergenerational composition, and often reflect the diversity of a segmented faith community, have the capacity, if they so wish, to do this. If the local church, mosque, temple or synagogue, via their leaders, encouraged members to attend events, or engage in activities that strive to bring communities together, the response would be positive. Likewise, if the same leaders arranged events at their places of worship for a similar purpose, the attendance would be encouraging.

Some of my work in this area has involved facilitating conversations between different faiths with an aim of breaking down suspicions, building greater trust, and ultimately creating more cohesive communities where citizens are committed to addressing the unmet needs of those affected by societal inequality. My initial conversations began with Black Christians and Black Muslim reverts (former Christians). Although there was resistance at first, progress has been made. However, there are others whose sterling efforts in this area take place on a macro-scale and go against the notion that faith communities live in silos of their own making, unwilling to engage with others. Policy makers and so-called opinion formers are failing to take note of the valid and invaluable conversations taking place between the various faiths in many of our towns and cities. Indeed, in several parts of London local faith groups are creating the ground work to build stronger, more integrated communities.

Given the importance of faith in many diverse communities, it would be an alarming oversight to marginalise it in the work to build stronger, cohesive communities. One only has to consider the sterling remedial work of the mosques and churches among those devastated by the Grenfell fire to see their value. Moreover, it is difficult to find a credible faith leader who has eschewed the need for community cohesion or has balked at integration per se. With that in mind, faith groups need to be supported in every way because they have a crucial role to play in this important task.


About the author

Richard Reddie is an author and researcher. He has written for a number of Christian and secular publications, including Focus, Christianity, the Weekly Gleaner and The Voice:  http://www.theguardian.com/profile/richard-reddie


To cite this post, please use the following: Reddie, Richard (2019) ‘The importance of faith in Britain’s social integration debate’, Public Spirit (3rd January 2019: http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/4771-2)

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