It isn’t just terrorists who need their minds opened to other cultures, it’s all of us

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This article was first published on the i News on 5th June 2017.

In the aftermath of the horrific terror attacks in London Bridge and Manchester, we have stood together against those who seek to destroy our way of life.

Britons of all faiths, and none, have united to remember those who so tragically and needlessly lost their lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.

We’ve read about those who offered food, shelter and sanctuary to those affected by the attacks and about those incredible people in our emergency services who ran towards danger, to protect those who were running to safety.

No quick-fix

As communities and as a nation we have come together, with stoicism and solidarity, to say that while we may have been scared and shocked we will not let such acts of mindless violence and thuggery stop us living our lives. We will not be cowed and we will carry on.

These memories will always live on, but our nation’s grieving will understandably turn towards answers. How can we prevent such an atrocity from happening again?

Community and social integration is something we have heard talked about a lot in recent days. But, just like every seemingly simple answer, the reality is far more nuanced and complex.

Social integration is not a quick-fix for home grown terrorism and mustn’t be conflated with attempts to fight it. Integration, as defined by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration which I chaired in the last Parliament, is the ‘extent to which people conform to shared norms and values and lead shared lives’. Research shows that an integrated society is the bedrock for a society in which we can trust each other and build strong, cohesive communities.

Why only Muslim schools?

Becoming ‘integrated’ isn’t something that should only apply to those at risk of radicalisation, or even those at the margins of society – it should apply to us all. We know that it isn’t just would-be terrorists who need their minds opened to other ways of life and other cultures, it’s all of us.

I fear Theresa May is already falling into the trap of conflating integration with counter-terrorism. In her statement in the wake of the attacks, she seemed to suggest that the segregation of our communities is only problematic when it leads to tolerance of extremism.

News reports have claimed that within weeks of the General Election, if a Conservative Government were in power, it would publish an Integration Strategy which would demand that predominantly Muslim schools twin or share activities with schools whose pupils are from different backgrounds.

We know that our schools are more segregated along class and ethnic lines than they have ever been and so any attempt to ensure pupils mix and meet peers from a different background is to be applauded. However, why only Muslim schools? What about the tens of thousands of other state schools in England whose pupils also deserve to be fully integrated into British society?

And why enable the creation of new 100 per cent selective Catholic faith schools, which the Tories have said they will do and will only lead to more division?

A ‘toxic brand’

An Integration Strategy should have a far wider scope than national security, as vitally important as that is, especially in these troubled times. In fact, conflating integration with counter-terrorism could not only drastically limit integration, it could put a stop to it.

When integration is seen to have a counter-extremism goal, it elicits suspicion and scepticism. Prevent, the government’s counter radicalisation and counter extremism programme, was seen to alienate so many, a former Chief Superintendent described the programme as a ‘toxic brand’.

As Dame Louise Casey said in her review into integration at the end of last year, an anti-Prevent lobby has “successfully stirred up anxiety and concern without offering any constructive alternatives to protect communities”.

‘Integration is a two-way street’

Research has shown that on average we Britons interact socially with someone from a different ethnicity less than half as often as would be expected if our social circles reflected the demographic makeup of our local areas. In fact, many of us meet and mix almost exclusively with people from similar backgrounds to us.

We desperately need an Integration Strategy that brings together people through a common experience. The National Citizen Service is an excellent example of this. As The Challenge, the UK’s social integration charity, has argued, we need to create new institutions and new movements that allow us to mix with those from different backgrounds to our own. And, of course, it is very important to recognise that integration is a two way street: newcomers and the settled community both have a role to play. To see integration through the prism of anti-terrorism is a quick-fix doomed to fail.