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Thinking more about the parables of Rabbi Johnathan Sacks in relation to the three models of integration of immigrants summarised in a previous post, I came across an article from Prospect magazine, written in 2005 by Bhikhu Parekh.  The article is based on a speech given in 2004 at the International Labour Organisation and published as “Unity and Diversity in Multicultural Societies”.  Lord Parekh, Baron Parekh of Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire, holds the Centennial Professorship at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, and was previously Chair of the Runnymeade Commission on the future of Multi-Ethnic Britain.  In many ways Parekh’s article is a precursor of the themes developed in Jonathan Sacks’s more recent book.  His article deals not only with the obligations of the community towards new immigrants but also the obligations of immigrants towards their new society.  It is not just about rights, but also about responsibilities. 

Parekh begins by reminding us that most developed societies are inescapably multicultural in the sense that there is enormous diversity of belief amongst people.  Causes of this diversity include: 

  • The rise of moral individualism

  • A decline in the traditional moral consensus

  • Ethnic and religious diversity

  • Globalisation

  • Immigration

 In an article that focuses on the diversity introduced by immigrants and the responsibility of immigrants in relation to society, Parekh remarks at the outset that immigrants do not necessarily introduce any further diversity into a society and more often than not tend to share the views of the majority.  Of the three models described by Sacks in his parables – the assimilationist or “country house” model, the “thin” integrationist or “hotel” model, and the third most desirable model of shared ownership – it is unsurprisingly the third model that Parekh, too, recommends.  In this third view of “equal citizenship” there is a recognition that a political community is a voluntary organisation of free and equal citizens held together by principles of justice as embodied in the structure of public authority and a regime of rights and obligations.  In other words a political community is a “bottom-up” and not a “top down” creation. 

In order for this political community to have any meaning for the participants, individuals have to identify with, or own, the community, accepting responsibility for it and promoting its wellbeing.  Ownership will include a sense of history which builds past experience into the identification, and will also include a future hopeful projection that plans the extension of the identification.  It is this past/present/future sense of common belonging that Parekh wants to see developed in Britain, including a moral and emotional commitment. Parekh draws a simple analogy with a membership club: 

“Ordinary clubs and associations insist on rules of membership, and rightly expect their successful new applicants to join them in good faith, observe their norms and do nothing to undermine them.” 

Belonging to the club does not involve severing ties with the individual’s country of origin, but does involve affording the new country an intrinsic value as a “home” and not just a place in which they happen to live or a place to make money.  Nor does the club always remain the same: it is inevitable that a society will change as new members are admitted and it is this inescapable change that threatens existing members. Immigrants should, Parekh argues, express their commitment to their new home.  This may be in one of the following ways: 

    • Respecting the existing structure of authority
    • Participating in the common life of the society
    • Discharging their share of collective responsibility by being productive workers, not abusing available welfare provisions.
    • Explicit professions of loyalty and patriotic sentiments 

Participation in the public sphere of the new society does not, however, rule out a personal, private sphere of activity where the immigrants are free to carry on their lives as they wish.  This freedom is, after all, already enjoyed by their fellow citizens. In order to participate in the public sphere, immigrants will need to acquire a “cultural competence” by learning the majority language, understanding and observing norms of civility and behaviour and familiarising themselves with the “small morals” of society, that is, society’s traditions, history, moral sensibilites and habits of thoughts. 

As this cultural competence is acquired, there will be a tendency to internalise the majority culture of the society, even where the practices seem to have no practical meaning.  Parekh gives the example of standing up for the national anthem: 

“There is nothing insincere, hypocritical or self-alienating about observing them without endorsing them, for it shows respect for society and its way of life, and facilitates good relations with its members.  Being new,  immigrants are unlikely to fully master the complex cultural grammar of a society.  But unless they make a sincere effort to acquire a modicum of cultural competence, they show lack of respect for society and create serious difficulties for themselves.  Their commitment to society is likely to be questioned.  They would be unable to communicate their aspirations and frustrations nor understand why sometimes others respond to these with incomprehension or resentment.  They also remain at the mercy of their more articulate spokesmen and brokers who have their own political agendas.”

In return for the moral and emotional commitment of immigrants, the wider society needs to ease their transition, recognising that the immigrant is often up against the following difficulties: 

    • The likelihood of experiencing discrimination and hostility from some members of the society
    • Discrimination in significant areas of life
    • Disadvantages resulting from poverty and lack of the majority language
    • The trauma of transition from one culture to another
    • Anxieties about their children
    • A mismatch between their aspirations and the reality of their new life 

Whilst formal and institutional discrimination if fairly easy to manage, informal discrimination is more insidious and will wear down victims and build resentment.  Living together can provide immigrants with a sense of security which enables them to overcome these feelings of discrimination.  Once they feel personally and socially secure they are more likely to begin to reach out to the wider society and experiment with its ways of life and thought.  In other words, informal, voluntary segration may be a positive thing in the short term;

“immigrants tend to move out of ethnically concentrated areas when they feel physically secure, acquire cultural self-confidence, improve their economic prospects and feel sure that they will not face rejection.” 

Measures to combat discrimination and to foster this self-confidence will be most effective if carried out at a local level.  Local schools are particularly important and must strive to avoid the assimilationist ethos that immigrants fear.  A broad programme of multicultural education “should also reduce the demand for separate ethnic and religious schools, which sometimes stand in the way of a common sense of belonging”. 

Parekh warns of the danger of ignoring understandable fears of the majority as change occurs: 

“A common sense of belonging is easier when both the majority and minority communities feel at ease with themselves and each other.  If minorities feel threatened, besieged, and fearful of cultural extinction, they turn inward, become defensive and tend to avoid all but the minimum contact with the rest of society.  This is equally true of the majority.  If it feels it is no longer in charge of its future and that its way of life is subject to relentless erosion, it becomes defensive and intolerant and either tries to close its doors to immigration, or falls prey to the unrealistic and self-defeating project of assimilation or total integration.” 

A fair, transparent and publicly debated immigration policy is essential, and must address the legitimate fears about immigration whilst combating racist rejection of all immigrants.  To refuse to recognise the fears, or the distinction between reasonable fears and racism is to be politically irresponsible.  Equally, a new British identity must be capable of being expressed in a plurality of images and must be capacious enough to encompass not only the traditional literary image of a green and rolling landscape of “church bells, quiet Sundays, dreaming spires, emotional self-disclipline, and the art of understatement and irony” but must also embrace the newer images from immigrant writers of elderly gentlemen walking to Friday prayers, of Diwali celebrations in public squares, spicy food and saris. 

On the one hand a British identity must be strong and fulfilling enough to enrich those who currently feel alienated and lonely.  On the other hand there must be a strong spirit of mutual commitment between the Muslim community and the wider British society.