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14 June 2007

Integration, not assimilation

I'm ready to integrate. But are you ready to accept me?

By Ajmal Masroor

The question of integration has been thrown around very irresponsibly by many people, especially the politicians. The onus has been squarely placed on the Muslim community and the assumption is that if the Muslim community integrates Britain would be a spectacularly cohesive and multicultural country. This is far from the truth. Today’s Britain has many social problems that can not be traced back or solved simply through integration.

Islam does not see any problem in integration. In fact, it strongly encourages Muslims to take full part in society and its institutions. At least this is what the faith says. In reality it may not be the case. While I am not justifying the lack of integration of Muslims, I am extremely alarmed by the lack of honest and serious debate around the topic.

Firstly, integration needs a comprehensive definition. It needs all stakeholders to agree on a set of common values. In my view, integration could be defined as “the bringing of people of different racial, ethnic or religious groups into unrestricted and equal association, as in society and its institutions”. Integration could also mean a process of desegregation, ie. dismantling of ghettos and removing barriers. Integration is the total opposite to disengagement.

Secondly, when I explain that Islam encourages integration, I ask you not to confuse it with assimilation. Islam would be opposed to any notion of assimilation. Integration is not about socially engineering a new generation based on no distinct faith, ethnic or cultural identity. This is precisely what assimilation would do. Islam proposes people to become loyal to their faith but their cultural or ethnic differences a reason for greater interaction and celebration.

Thirdly, integration it is not a one-way street. Minority communities do not have a moral obligation to integrate into the majority community. Such a suggestion assumes the majority communities’ values, lifestyle, cultures and customs are superior. This is simply an arrogant supposition. Integration must have an element of give and take and willingness to share.

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Integration is not the end but simply a process where people of all background come together to make connections and develop shared values mutually. The outcome is a cohesive and integrated society. Integration is like a watch. A watch has small components inside; each component by itself can not be called a watch, although they may function individually. However when all the components are arranged in an orderly fashion the watch works perfectly.

All cultures, faiths, traditions and customs together would form an integrated society. If we take the example of the watch, every component is vital; similarly every stakeholder in such an integrated society would be a crucial partner. It must be a relationship based on proportionality and most certainly on equal worth and respect.

There are many challenges we need to overcome. When we are developing common values the biggest and most pressing question is how to resolve the problems of cultural norms and values that are at polar ends.

There are several examples I can mention that would make developing shared values very difficult. Such as, for one, the fact that British society’s social life is based around drinking alcohol while it is totally forbidden for a Muslim to drink, buy, sell, carry or sit around the same table where alcohol is being consumed. This means Muslims are not able to socialise with the non-Muslim communities fully where drinking alcohol is so prevalent. Would that prevent us from developing common values?

Let us take another example. The interaction between men and women in Islam is substantially different. While in this country physical contact between the sexes is normal in Islam there are restrictions – and these are for a reason. In today’s Britain sex outside marriage has become a cultural norm while in Islam sex outside a marital relationship is not allowed.

Despite some of these intrinsic differences I am, along with majority of the Muslim citizens of this country, willing to integrate fully but are you willing to accept me fully? My definition of integration is to retain my identity and values and you retain yours but we agree to interact on civic duties as equal partners, we work for the well being of our country and all the citizens. We run our affairs in a democratic, pluralistic and transparent manner. The aim would be to create a society in which we have unrestricted and equal association.

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