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Community meltdown

Tim Root looks behind the veil at the empty rhetoric of community cohesion

The government’s Community Cohesion agenda has suffered a severe setback. Seeking Labour’s Deputy Leadership, Jack Straw has deliberately inflamed Islamophobia by calling on Muslim women not to wear the veil. Predictably he was backed by 97% of readers of the Daily Express. Phil Woolas, Minister for Race and Equalities, suggested that people who ‘don’t understand the culture’ can find the veil ‘frightening and intimidating’. Straw has heightened this fear by justifying it, despite supposedly warning against ‘separation and difference’. Within a few days of publication of his remarks, two veil-wearing women had been attacked, and Muslim organisations had received an upsurge in hate mail.

Research shows that the perception of conflict or threat is the largest factor promoting group prejudice of any kind, including racism or religious hatred. Such perceptions are widespread: a recent study suggested that about a fifth of people would consider voting BNP. Seven per cent of British Muslims believe suicide bombings in Britain are justifiable, while 13% have a lot of sympathy with the 7/7 bombers. Soon after 7/7 nearly half of Britons considered Islam, ‘as distinct from Islamic fundamentalist groups’, posed a threat to ‘Western liberal democracy’. Rushanara Ali and Geoff Mulgan recently warned that “We are now in territory in which small mistakes can have huge consequences”. Unless trust can be restored, before long a race riot will erupt in which people will be killed. Extremists on both sides will exploit this to stir up further hate and fear. Another 7/7 will be brought closer. Electoral reform and school integration are two policy areas where action could help avert this appalling prospect.

David Cameron has joined the Islamophobic fray, with remarks headlined as ‘Ban Muslim ghettos’. Our electoral system encourages Cameron and Straw’s strategy. Of Labour’s forty-one most marginal seats, the Tories are the challenger in 34. Labour tries to retain voters who might switch to the Tories, and can ignore the views of the millions who would never vote Tory. Under proportional representation (PR) Labour would need to compete with a true Socialist party, and could not afford to pander to xenophobia. Research on over a hundred nations shows that PR has the strongest impact of various factors on preventing racial conflict. This is probably because it enables more parties to become serious contenders, representing all significant viewpoints, thus encouraging people to pursue their grievances through politics rather than disorder.

Fear of the BNP is not a reason to oppose PR. International research shows that there is no relationship between the proportionality of the electoral system and the vote of far Right parties. Where the BNP have gained councillors, people have soon recognised their inadequacy. It is when people feel that the mainstream parties ignore their concerns that some will be seduced by fascists or Islamist extremists. This would be much less likely under PR, which is favoured by nearly two-thirds of Britons. A truly representative parliament would not have approved the Iraq war, which has boosted support for Islamist extremism.

Recent reports on the racially segregated towns where riots took place in 2001 show that the measures available to local politicians are far too modest to promote cohesion significantly. For instance in Bradford progress in employment, education and housing is behind the targets set, while in Burnley racial incidents have increased. After the 2001 riots former Commission for Racial Equality chief Sir Herman Ouseley investigated Bradford’s racial problems. Bradford youth told him of their ‘ignorance about cultural diversity’ due to the racial segregation of their schools. Yet the government’s policy to encourage more faith schools will increase segregation. Already over four-fifths of white children attend schools which are at least 90% white, while about one in ten Asian children is at a school which is at least 80% Asian. A large multi-national body of research shows that contact between people of different races reduces racism. This effect is stronger among children than adults. It is much stronger when the races have equal status in the contact situation, and when the contact is sanctioned by authority. This could best be achieved in schools, as status differences between the races are less salient to young children than to adults.

It would be wrong to discriminate by refusing to fund further Muslim schools, given that there are far more Christian schools. However we need to consider the likely results of an increasing number of Muslim schools alongside Christian schools. Nearly half of Muslims would prefer to send their child to a Muslim school. Most parents would not want to be seen as letting down their own racial group, and would not want their child to be in a minority at school. A House of Commons select committee stated that parents often choose schools containing mostly children from their own race due to ‘ignorance and fear of other cultures’. Given the level of Islamophobia described above, hardly any non-Muslims would send their child to a Muslim school. Therefore proliferation of faith schools would probably lead to a norm in most districts of sending one’s child to the school of one’s faith. When prospective parents set up home most would choose to live close to a school of their faith or dominated by their racial group. As a result, residential segregation of the races would increase. The government’s wish for more faith schools also ignores a poll finding that two-thirds of Britons oppose state funded faith schools, and studies showing that they achieve poorer results once the relatively privileged nature of their pupil intake is taken into account.

Trevor Phillips has pointed out that some faith schools are less racially segregated than nearby non-faith schools. However this is because nearly all current faith schools are Christian, and are popular with both black and white parents. This would not apply to Muslim schools. A wise policy would reduce the number of Christian schools, and improve under-performing schools, so parents could have confidence in all schools. The government has dogmatically excluded faith schools from the remit of its new Commission for Integration and Cohesion. Please take part in its consultation events, which will be announced soon at http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1501520.

The government proposes that schools should be twinned to give children the opportunity to meet others from different backgrounds. However research shows that anxiety about meeting people from an unfamiliar group would counteract the attempt to reduce prejudice. A head teacher with experience of twinning his mostly black school with an all white school stressed that this ‘is very difficult to achieve, and can be disastrous if done badly.’ The relatively infrequent encounters which school twinning provides may fail to dispel preconceptions about the other group of children. They do not enable children to make the long-term relationships which teach them that individual characteristics are much more important than racial or religious ones.

The day after 7/7 the people of Leicester held a rally to show their solidarity against the bombings, with speakers from all faiths. When faced with a common threat, people of different backgrounds can combine to fight it, and build strong relationships which will gradually dilute racism. Provided we sustain trust in each other’s goodwill, the civilised majority of Britons can unite to defeat Islamophobia, racism, and the violence they cause. However to achieve this, the government will need to invest much more on a long-term basis to bring hope to disadvantaged areas, combat racial harassment, reform our democracy so all citizens feel they can make their voice heard, and give people, especially the young, opportunities to get to know people of other races and religions.

Tim Root is author of Love, Empowerment and Social Justice: Personal Relationships and Citizen Action (Open Gate Press, 2005)