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Integration: Part Two, Reconstructing Integration

In the first part of this essay I claimed that discourses shape the scope of our vision as well as the manner in which we cognise the content of that vision. It is through this theoretical position that I have attempted to frame the issue of integration, and in choosing to treat the notion of integration discursively (as opposed to through concrete examples and case studies) I have attempted to highlight the productive aspect of its representational practices. Deconstructing the concept of integration itself opens it up to the question of power relations and presents the discourse built up around it as a technique of exercising power. Thus the focus falls more on what the integration discourse as a practice does, and what it does, as the first part of this essay pointed out, is perpetuate a differential of power while guising it in a certain kind of equity. Key to this process is the placement of responsibility for integration solely with the minority community/collectivity and, secondly, fixing the minorities in the position of ‘other’ and rendering the problem of coping with “change” (their ability/inability to do so) as an issue concerning them alone.

If this is – as I am arguing it is – the subtext of the integration discourse, then I suggest we urgently need a counter discourse whose central aim ought to be a reconstruction of the concept of integration. Counter-voices championing a more equitable multicultural Britain must stand and contribute more vociferously to the ongoing debate. One way to begin may be by challenging the visual scope that the present discourse shapes, wherein difference is seen as something beyond the conception of Britain and therefore as threatening to ‘it’. To place difference at the very heart of Britain would constitute something common – that is, “we value difference, diversity, and the multiplicity of voices that usher from this reality”. Nor is it the case that this reality does not exist at all. {quotes}The image of Britain is no longer a monochromatic one, nor one that is monolingual.{/quotes}

The Muslim call for prayer rings out loud over the skies of Britain while a Jewish man walks along the street, passing on his way a Rastafarian with his colourful head covering, who goes on to shake hands with his Caucasian friend, who’ll go on to have dinner with someone from a Sikh background. Optimistic and naïve though this may sound, it is not a far cry from large parts of Britain. Of course racism does exist, and inevitably the one who has experienced it first hand will invariably be critical. Nonetheless, the new narrative that needs to be woven from one where difference is exorcised as something threatening, and re-embraced as the very heart of contemporary Britain.

Meera Syal captures this well in the opening of her novel, Life isn’t all ha ha hee hee. She describes a street in Leyton one winter morning, as the sound of a wedding procession attracts the other residents who stand ‘guarding their stone-clad kingdoms wearily, in case bhangra-ing in bollock-freezing weather was infectious’.[1] Syal’s Leyton is an emblem of diversity and difference; even the snow that falls over it isn’t monochromatically white. ‘Pigeons shook their heads,’ Syal tells us, sneezing, blinking away the icy specks, claws skittering on the unfamiliar roof which had once been the reassuring flat red tiles of the Methodist church and was now a gleaming minaret, topped by a metal sickle moon. The moon at midday, dark snow and nowhere to perch. No wonder they said Coo.[2]

The pigeons may register the change of the tiles but the residents of the street, no doubt, register the reality of what this change symbolises: the demographic revolution of post-war Britain. If the setting of the wedding is not some hot country lane in the Punjab, it is also not the same road for the Britton who looks on. Britain and “it’s” culture has changed and this must be one of the first affirmations of the new narrative for a new and more equitable integrative politics.

Part of this endeavour is to celebrate this new cultural change, not merely in token gestures of chicken tikka becoming the nation’s favourite food, but in more practicable terms: e.g. the development and funding of a wider breadth of language teaching in schools. We must recognise that the sights and sound of Britain have changed, changing thus the very nature of what we term British. Women with a headscarf or people speaking Cantonese are as much a part of this country’s landscape as anyone else; celebrating this must involve an acknowledgement of this crucial change. Underlying this perspective is a conviction that integration has as much to do with history-making as it does with some official (capital ‘H’) History itself, and this truth must be appreciated by ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ alike.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth presents itself as useful (again) to expound my point, as it represents through fiction (rather skilfully) what I am trying to explore theoretically about our reality, in order to forward my conviction in the need to conceptualise anew the ways in which we speak about that reality. Smith’s treatment of history in the novel is inescapably linked with her characters[3] and as such becomes part of their characterisation. In this respect, Smith seems to be intimating the manner in which history is as much a part of human make up as it is in records and concrete artefacts. Of course for Samad (one of the central characters) the picture of his great grandfather acts as a motif, which recalls his past and in which he reserves a sense of being more than he presently is. This is best illustrated after his comic encounter with Mad Marry when Poppy Burt-Jones remarks, ‘calm in a crisis; impressive’, to which he says (thinking about his great grandfather), ‘it runs in the family’.[4] For Samad Miah his past is both the reserve of his true identity and an axis from which to derive pride. This is why he is motivated to send his children back “home” so that they may learn their history and identity. When his plan fails he says about his sons, ‘They have both lost their way. Strayed so far from what I had intended for them. No doubt they will both marry white women called Sheila and put me in an early grave.’[5]

The comedy here works in a dual capacity. It undercuts the seriousness of the immigrant parents’ concerns and, at the same time, pokes fun at Samad’s contradicting character, since he himself had a brief affair with a white woman earlier in the novel. However, more seriously it illustrates the manner in which the immigrant locks history into a geographical and temporal sphere.

Only in this way do his or her feelings of connection with the homeland remain, idealised as they are in their memory. In this way, the process of emigrating is both coped with and negotiated. What this tendency does prevent however, is their ability to build a history in the new land. In this way the immigrant contests the monocultural view that those arriving in the ‘green-and-pleasant-libertarian-land-of-the-free’ should enter as ‘blank people, free of any kind of baggage, happy and willing to leave their differences at the docks’.[6] What the immigrant does not contest, however, is the view that there can ever be ‘blank people’.

Smith uses the ironic tone of her narrative to undermine such a simplistic and skewered view of history. When the narrative says, ‘Mr Schmutters and Mr Banaji…merrily…weaving their way through Happy Multicultural Land[7] the capitalisation points to Smith’s satirical intent.[8] Similarly, Irie’s outburst on the bus towards the end of the novel expresses her frustrations at the inescapability of history and the burden it bears upon the individual. All of this demonstrates that history in White Teeth is more complex and this ties in well with Smith’s chosen epitaph (‘What is past is prologue’). History in White Teeth is as much a presence in the text as the characters are, partly because Smith has paid great attention to history in their characterisation, but also because she is using it as a structural device for the narrative. This is plain to see in the fact that the narrative spans three decades and focuses in on particular historic events, such as the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the Satanic Affairs episode. But there is a more subtle use of the past as a narrative device. When Archie is trying to commit suicide the narrative goes back to explain how the present has come about – in this case, Archie gassing himself. In this way Smith makes an explicit assertion that the present is borne of the past. Quite apart from being merely a self-evident truth, Smith transposes this reality into a multicultural context and thereby into the integration discourse as a disturbing counterpoint, unable to be resolved by that discourse’s present contours.

We do not enter a country as ‘blank people’ nor does our history exist as a monolith reality closed and able to be represented by a single memorabilia, as is the naïve case with Samad Miah. Rather, history is constantly being made in the present and it is this thematic significance of the novel with which I am interested. Smith suggests that people do not belong to places by virtue of their ethnicity or even nationality (hence the jibe at the ‘Happy Multicultural Land’). Instead, history exists within people. Samad has become historically linked with Willesden Green and Britain as much as J. P. Hamilton is. Indeed, Hamilton’s refusal to believe that Magid and Millat’s father (Samad) had served in the British Army during World War 2 stands testament to the fact that the present discourse, which shapes the thinking of both the ‘host’ country as much as the immigrant, does not acknowledge the possibility of history-making. It is for this reason that remarks such as, ‘they should all go home’ appear not only offensive but intellectually bankrupt. A person becomes integrated in the entity that is ‘Britain’ as soon as a history starts to emerge for them there: materialised in the concrete spaces of Britain and marked by the interactions they undertake here.

It is for this reason that Samad’s decision to send one of his sons ‘back home’ – presumably to learn “his” roots – is misconceived. For if the immigrant’s challenge is to learn to accept the new histories growing in his new surroundings, Samad is forcing upon his son an inverted and complicated sense of dislocation, by virtue of his becoming an immigrant twice over. At the same time, the notion of integrating into something pre-existing is also misconceived since there is no homogenous, unchanging whole with which to integrate, only a series of interactions, negotiations, and effects. For instance, a Bihari woman negotiates the financial and bureaucratic structures to open an Indian sweet shop, introducing local residents to the tastes of Bihar. Instantly she has altered the landscape and taste of Britain and created opportunities for interaction that affects all those involved.

Reconstructing integration must, then, present it as a concept with an absence at its centre as opposed to a presence; that is, with a series of open ended processes and possibilities as opposed to a foreclosed and predetermined table of options. By reconstructing integration in this way what we simultaneously do is call for a re-imagining of Britain itself. This, then, is the threat that a resurging Right foresee in the concept of multiculturalism and its fuller actualisation. Following, in a sense, the fuller logic of that actualisation, what I am proposing is the need to re-imagine Britain as a structural entity over and above a cultural one. This does not mean that its historic culture is done away with altogether, but that, as with religion in a secular state, we place all cultures on an equal footing.

Thus, we weed out of the system all barriers and glass ceilings to assist in the inclusion of people from all sorts of different backgrounds. So for example, the structures of a multicultural Britain ought to (structurally) facilitate the Bihari woman in my example above and not work against her due to her ethnicity. And where bigoted individuals misapply the structure, the structure again ought to assist her in righting the wrong. What I mean by structure, as may be clear by now, is the bureaucratic and legal frameworks that form the broad contours of a society.

I recognise that devising a separation between the cultural and structural elements of a society may be more than a little arbitrary, since one informs the other. Yet it is my conviction that this separation is a heuristic necessity, in order to cover more ground and make the possibility of achieving a more equitable integrative politics manageable.

On the cultural front, which I believe is the zone wherein to challenge the shaping of bigoted subjectivities, I propose the building up of a narrative and discourse (to which end this essay is a contribution) and the building of a loud echo for its promulgation. In this ‘zone’ we must critique and amend the several representative practices that currently exist – for instance, the dichotomous portrayal of religiosity as either synonymous with terrorism or an otherworldly spiritualism. At the same time we must locate sites of cooperation such as volunteering, community work and sports, all of which are valuable means for bringing people together. Greater attention needs to be paid therefore to these kinds of pragmatic endeavours over and above the present discourse’s emphasis on conformation.

By stressing the structural over the cultural, what we also do is create an important way of checking the state’s capacity to slip from a facilitative identity to a dictatorial one. The latter is what France has become in its determination to suffocate the identity, culture and religion of its ethnic minorities, a fact that became pertinently obvious following the November 2005 riots. These riots – termed France’s Hurricane Katrina by Graham Murray – exposed the racism that is deeply ingrained in the land of liberté, egalité, fraternité. If members of Britain’s ethnic minority communities are planning to visit France they should, warns Murray, ‘put their clocks back by about thirty years’.[9] This is a country, he continues, where a foreign sounding name on a CV will severely compromise your chances of getting an interview and where landlords still instruct estate agents to find white tenants. All in all, France is a considerably divided nation leading even one of its top financial newspapers to aver that, ‘prejudice, stereotypes, and xenophobia’ are to a large degree responsible for the lack of opportunities available to graduates of ethnic minorities in cooperate France.[10] Yet ironically, France is proud of its modéle d’intégration and derides the British approach of multiculturalisme. But what sustains this seeming contradiction is the staunch belief in France as a cultural entity: ‘France will always be France with French values and customs and a proud history…[with which] les immigrés must assimilate by embracing the culture, language, and traditions of La République.’[11]

Seeing France as a cultural entity over and above a structural one explains why candidates seeking French nationality are asked if they read foreign newspapers and why immigrant nationals are encouraged to adopt French sounding names.[12] Indeed, the whole process of la naturalisation in France proves to be a humiliating and culturally weighted practice.

Take the example of a North African lawyer who was asked how often she ate couscous, or how many times she visited Morocco, and the case of a Tunisian candidate, who, after finally reaching the interview stage, was asked to justify his two visits to Mecca.[13] What is more than ironic here is that all this is patently against the very spirit of the Revolution on which modern France purports to be founded. However, France has long since slipped into becoming a cultural entity over and above a structural one. Hence the secularism that ought to guide it pragmatically has mutated into a fundamentalism itself, following the states hysterical obsession with it. The prime example of this obsession, and the looming large of France as a cultural spectre in the imaginations of much of the nation, is the infamous law that prevents Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in schools. Murray describes the close observation meted out to pupils as they enter a school following the summer holidays. In one instance the headmaster stops a girl who has opted for a bandana in place of her hijab, telling her that her ears are not showing; ‘I want to see your ears’ he says. Murray points out that after enduring this ordeal with remarkable patience the girl is finally allowed ‘in’, although, he says, ‘what her state of mind must be one can only imagine.’[14] One may well wonder that if France hopes to assimilate its minority communities, it is going about it in a rather odd way. The truth is that France (similar to the trend of the dominant integration discourse in Britain – admittedly a degree more extreme in the former case), conceives itself as a cultural entity first and foremost and so, almost blind to the full effects of its own actions, merely alienates and ‘radicalises’ the very citizens it wishes to absorb.

We in Britain must be proud of our successes so far and must protect these, not only for the minorities who have benefited, but also for Britain’s moral integrity and truthfulness to the very principles that the dominant integration discourse seeks to protect. For instance, we must be proud of being one of the first modern welfare states and that the corrosion of this fundamental feature of the structure of Britain must be safeguarded against. Hence, diverting financial resources into foreign misadventures, placing too heavy an emphasis on the privatisation of national institutions, or giving into the pressures of a narrowly defined nationalism, must all be resisted. Indeed, a spirit of openness must guide any attempted definition of Britain, presenting it as, for example, a welfare state first and foremost; a humanitarian state; a peace focused state; a state infused with the principle of fair play.

In a speech delivered at the London Muslim Centre earlier this year, the former Lord Chief Justice also proposed such a definition of Britain and a case for making a division between its cultural and structural elements. Focussing on the question of whether the law treats everyone equally, Lord Phillips made a convincing case of the progressive endeavours within the structural capacity of the law to ‘outlaw all forms of discrimination’.[15] He cited the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and its 1976 amendment that proposed:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

He also cited laws passed by the British Parliament against discrimination and for the inclusion of people from different backgrounds, as cases in point for minorities to be confident that they are treated equally in the letter of the law. All very convincing and, indeed, to be encouraged since this approach positions Britain as a structural entity over and above a cultural one, where, structurally speaking at least, all efforts are made to facilitate harmonious living for people of diverse backgrounds. What the speech fails to acknowledge is the need to simultaneously operate within the cultural zone to ratify the discourses and narrative that help underpin this structural approach. This cultural effort must be, paradoxically, to undermine the dominant cultural topography in favour of building a new one where difference, change, and a firm commitment to multiculturalism’s fuller actualisation is centre. The lack of effort or success on this front has meant that what we have in contemporary Britain is a precarious status quo. On the one hand, the case presented by the Lord Chief Justice seems true enough but on the other hand there is a growing trend in officialdom for atavistic assimilationist policies. The result is a deep ambivalence in minority communities in particular, and a retreat into black and white pictures to deal with this confusing and conflicting reality, where what Lord Phillips says seems to coexist with flagrant discrimination.

It is here that my division of the cultural and structural comes into its own. Though the emphasis on the structural helps frame the state as facilitative (as opposed to dictatorial), this can only ever be sustained by an ongoing cultural effort to maintain it. So we are back to narratives and discourses. To reconstruct integration we need to generate a new narrative and a new discourse where key ideas, images, phrases, and words are echoed until they begin to etch a new framework through which one can see a hijabi walking down a street in London and regard her as perfectly at ‘home’.


[1] Meera Syal, Life isn’t all ha ha hee hee, (London: Picador, 2001), p1.
[2] Ibid, p1.
[3]  And since many of them share an immigrant background, with also the immigrants experience of history.
[4] Zadie Smith, White Teeth, (London: Penguin, 2000), p180.
[5] Ibid, p406.
[6] Ibid, p465.
[7] Ibid, p465.
[8] Clare Squires, Zadie Smith White Teeth, (London: Continuum Contemporaries, 2002), p44.
[9] Graham Murray, 2006, “France: The Riots and the Republic”, Race and Class, 47(4), p27.
[10]  Les Echos (7 Nov 2005), cited in, ibid, p28.
[11] Ibid, p36.
[12] Ibid, p36.
[14] Graham Murray, 2006, “France: The Riots and the Republic”, Race and Class, 47(4), p40.

About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.


  1. Point 1 and 3 worth exploring.
    MN is absolutely right in that this essay should raise more questions and should not be taken as foreclosed to modifications. However, there has been very little defence of multiculturalism and its virtues and a rise in assimilative ideas floating around. Arun Kundnani puts it this way: “In effect, this has meant that the right-wing thinktanks’ definition of a ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ has not been challenged and the Left has differed only in the sorts of solutions it proposes. While IPPR, in particular, has over the last few years published reports that question the perception of an ‘immigration crisis’, it has not done the same to challenge the idea of a ‘multiculturalism crisis’ or a ‘Muslim problem’.” That being the case what we need is more of a challenge to the assumptions of the dominant discourses (part one), at the same time as a growing discourse of our own (part two) that offers alternative imaginings that can provide a substantial alternative viewpoint, regardless of how difficult its actualisation may seem. Points 1 and 3, however, raise some interesting thoughts and are worth exploring.

  2. Questions=?
    A very enjoyable read which clearly articulates a step forward for the Muslim community. However, the article at hand manages to (as I assume it is meant to) raise further questions, some of which question the reality of what the article seeks:
    1. Since secularism regulates the equality of religions, how can we regulate (without a regulatory medium) the equality of cultures? Of course, secularism has been agreed upon by the majority of Britons as the method of governace, yet I don’t somehow see the white middle and working class agreeing to a normalised ‘structural’ norm of cultural egality.
    2. Although culture does play a large role in society, to what realistic extent can we argue that cultural norms should be accepted, especially in light of the fact that the vast majority of Britons (90%+) are one ethnicity (white) and will in no certain terms want to concede the superiority of their culture in Britain?
    3. From an Islamic perspective, how appropriate or valid is it that we (as Muslims) call for the understanding of culture, especially in light of the fact that many a time we find culture (such as S.Asian) at variance with Islamic cultural and/or legal practice? This is further demonstrated by the very irritating fact that many schools (usually due to Asian parents) assume that ‘Islamic’ dress for girls consists of shalwar kameez as opposed to the more correct hijab and jilbab.

    However, I extremely like the idea that British identity be shaped by the people who reside in it as opposed to an historical narrative which keeps being played like a bad record (king Henry, the battle of Waterloo etc). The (British) identity in question, even from an Islamic perspective, could easily be formed through norms and ideals shared by all such as the promotion of justice, charity, freedom (within a given scope), public service, respect, ettiquette etc.

    May Allah reward you brother for the hard work you do 🙂

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