The Blog

Integration And Assimilation: Politicians Need to Know The Difference.

Politicians have misused 'integration' to describe assimilation. In doing so, they have given false expectations of what it produces. Migrant groups are consequently misrepresented as isolated and disloyal.

Integration has become a very politicised word. It has become a stick to beat stubborn migrant groups in Britain, who have seemingly failed to adjust to British Society. Since 2010, the concept has been weaponized. David Cameron dedicated his first speech as Prime Minister to attacking 'state multiculturalism' and argued for a much stronger national identity to prevent extremism. More recently, there has been a linguistic turn towards 'British values'. Both David Cameron and our current Prime Minister, Theresa May, have promised a robust defence of these special values. In practicality, 'British values' seems to be nothing more than a soundbite, since nobody seems to know what these values are exactly. This however should come as no surprise since these are the same people that came up with 'Brexit means Brexit'. Though the words have changed, we do know that the message is very much the same. British values are supposed to be about integration. Except it isn't: it's about assimilation.

Roy Jenkins, Britain's Home Secretary at 1966, provides the most effective definition of both processes. He states:

"I do not regard [integration] as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own national characteristics and culture.... I define integration, therefore, not a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance".

Here integration is shown as a two-way process, where the national characteristics and culture enrich that of Britain's. Conversely, assimilation disregards this intermingling of cultures. The International Organisation for Migration sees assimilation purely as a one-way process. It defines it as adjusting entirely to the values and the rights system of the host society. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the whole rhetoric of "British values" falls in the category of assimilation rather than integration. And perhaps it might be understandable (albeit slightly understandable) if the government has publicly made assimilation its political object. But it has not. It speaks of assimilation through the guise of integration.

By mixing the two concept, politicians have enabled stigmatisation of migrants and migrant origin groups as a fifth column. In fact, that is exactly how Nigel Farage described the UK's British community. British Muslims have unfortunately grown accustomed to being treated as suspicious insiders. The careless association of the lack of 'British values' with Islamic extremism implicitly implies that Islamic values and British values are somewhat mutually exclusive. This implication is of course not vocalised but it has been the driving force behind the government's counter-terrorism strategy. It legitimizes the unprecedented levels of thought-policing through PREVENT. It assumes that Muslim communities in Britain, if left unchecked, are more vulnerable to radicalisation. Thus the execution of PREVENT by the previous two governments has embodied this confusion between the two. It was intended as a Government policy to promote integration. However, a recent report by the Open Society has stated that it confused this "with Government policy to prevent terrorism". Thus in a sense PREVENT, and other forms of counter-terrorism programs, resemble the imperial 'civilising missions' to enlighten colonial subjects. Its intention is to assimilate rather than integrate and yet it does neither.

But more importantly, it makes us lose track of when migrant groups have successfully integrated. Politicians and tabloids would give the impression that the identity of migrant groups are static. This has been popularized through the notorious 'Tebbit test', where Norman Tebbit claimed that you could test the loyalty of migrant groups to Britain by analysing which national sports team they support. It operates under the assumption that migrant groups are 'harking back' to their country origin if they support any other team other than England. Yet what Tebbit and his sympathizers fail to see is that identities are multifaceted : they do not have to conflict with each other. It is possible to see yourself both as British and as Pakistani at the same time. There does not have to be a dichotomy of those who 'hark back' and those who identify as solely British.

Much of the British Pakistani community feature in this middle ground. The cultural footprint left behind the British Pakistani community is not the same as that found in Pakistan. The music of Imran Khan, for example, is a fusion of Punjabi, RnB and many other diverse genres in British music. His music is as much a product from Britain as it is from Pakistan, even though his lyrics are in Punjabi. Zayn Malik, one of the most mainstream musicians, can also fall into this category. Zayn grew up in Bradford, a city with one of the highest concentration of Pakistani Diaspora in Britain so it is very likely he would have been shaped by this. His recent album includes music completely in Urdu, which he states was inspired by his father's culture. His choice to turn to his roots is not a rejection of Britain. In fact, it compliments his British identity. Yet Imran Khan and Zayn Malik are only two figures in the wide expanse of British Pakistani culture. There are many more that have redefined what it means to be both a Pakistani and British. And as Zayn Malik has shown, it occurs in even the most ethnically segregated of places like Bradford. Integration has to be a dialogue between cultures, not a competition.

Politicians have misused 'integration' to describe assimilation. In doing so, they have given false expectations of what it produces. Migrant groups are consequently misrepresented as isolated and disloyal. And through this narrow definition, the integration that does take place escapes our vision. We miss out on how migrant groups merge their cultures to recreate their identities. It's ironic that a word used so frequently in political discourse has lost much of its meaning. We need to make politicians accountable for terms they use and their intentions behind them. Otherwise we risk it being a word that only serves to castigate migrants rather than empower them.