Home / Analysis / Integration: Part One, Deconstructing Integration

Integration: Part One, Deconstructing Integration


Integration is one of those topics that never quite disappear, and if you’re a Muslim these days, chances are, there is an overwhelming sense of an atmosphere thick with question marks around the issue. The question mark, however, is rarely placed at the end of the word integration itself. Was that to happen it would look something like this: integration? Such a repositioning of the question mark challenges the normative discussions around the issue, and refuses to entertain the topic without thoroughly questioning the very basic presuppositions that, astonishingly, do not get raised enough when the topic resurfaces for its annual discussion. The most basic of these presuppositions is that integration signifies a unified and consistent practice. The first problematisation the question mark ushers in, therefore, is devastatingly simple: what exactly is/constitutes integration? Then, as if the first domino has fallen, the unravelling speeds up. How does integration manifest itself? What does one integrate into? What are the sites of integration? Who is involved and to what extent? Is integration a continuous process/performance/practice? Are there degrees of integration? Why are some more integrated than others? What is the difference between integrated and non-integrated subjectivities? {quotes}Indeed the question marks become almost endless and, of course, the discussion is somewhat halted in its tracks, which, unsurprisingly, is why this deconstructive approach is not favoured by broadcasters.{/quotes}

It is, however, the key methodology minorities ought to (strategically) adopt and insist on, since it allows the minority to look behind a given discourse and question its legitimacy. When this is done, what one finds regarding the discourse on social cohesion, integration and minority affairs more generally, is a patchier picture than one may otherwise expect. This particular discourse is littered with inconsistencies, uncomfortable assumptions, and more worryingly, a blindness that fuels the very conditions it seeks to control and mitigate. It is this kind of deconstruction that this essay will pursue in order to substantiate the proposition that, to achieve a more equitable form of integrative politics (of policy and govermentality), we must re-conceptualise the term integration itself. Hence, part one will engage in a deconstruction of the term, while part two will attempt some kind of reconstruction.

When one speaks about integration there is a tacit understanding that what we are talking about are two distinct social collectivities. On the one hand you have the ‘host’ culture/community/collectivity, and on the other the minority culture/community/collectivity.1 When one talks about integration, therefore, it normally concerns these two collectivities and their existence beyond mere co-existence; that is: beyond existing in isolation of each other. Indeed, the discourse frames segregation as a key factor in the social problems that afflict multicultural Britain, and thus the very term multicultural adopts more than a mere descriptive function. In this way, the discourse both conceptualises and organises the object/s of discussion. Noteworthy, however, is the fact that the discourse is not shaped by everyone equally, and thus the very discourse that seeks to explain and discuss the topic of integration, ends up establishing a differential of power.

We can see this in clearer terms in the way that one collectivity is fixed while the other is made to move. This popular typology normally presents the host culture as fixed and the minority as needing to move closer to it; thus the degree of distance translates into a simplified index of integrated/non-integrated. This sloppy but apparently appealing layout obscures some curious intellectual gymnastics. For example, the ‘host’ culture is lined up with a minority subject or citizenry, which suggests that the ‘majority’ subject or citizenry is synonymous with “host culture”. Yet where does this majority exist? How is the majority constituted? And is it really the case that the majority share this culture in common such that they do not themselves need any integrating with it? What is more, since the subjectivity of the ‘host’ is equated with the culture that the minority is expected to integrate with, there is a worrying subtext to the integration discourse which proposes the need to mould minority subjectivities in the image of the ‘majority’?

So prevalent and hidden is this tendency that a novelist like Zadie Smith – herself possessing a minority identity and who is sympathetic to the problems of minorities – seems to affirm the same typology I have described above, albeit, I suspect, unknowingly. In her debut novel, White Teeth, Smith presents the complexity of a multicultural society not only through her racially diverse characters, but through her inability to fully control the already in place dynamics of the multicultural/integration discourse. In an innocent and throwaway remark some 300 pages into the novel, the narrator intervenes in the story to profess an authorial comment.

This had been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This had been the century of the great experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rehman in the foot ball cage… Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks.2

Smith’s intention is not suspect; by calling our time ‘the century of the great experiment’ she recognizes through her choice of phrase, that there is an implicit unpredictability and uncertainty about what we call multiculturalism. Similarly, by characterising the children’s names as being on a collision course, she manages to express both the tensions and the possible complementation of a coming together of different cultural matrices. Yet at the same time she stands as testament to the fact that discourses in any given age – that is, the way a society “talks” about a topic – delimit our thoughts. It is with the set of images she presents at the end, therefore, that I profess unease. For in this experiment and in this collision of cultures it is the immigrant who is focus – bearer of great riches or agent of trouble, depending on who is doing the interpreting. This is clear from the way that the names Smith is interested in are the ones which excrete ‘mass exodus…cold arrivals, [and] medical checks’. In this way the immigrant is kept locked to his designation of ‘other’ and this is what carries the mark of the influence of the integration discourse.

By fixing the minorities in the position of the ‘other’, what is underscored is firstly the indigenity of the host, in a way that forecloses the possibility of the minority obtaining recognition as ‘host’. Secondly, the typology is maintained since fixing the minority in the category of ‘other’ renders them, paradoxically perhaps, free floating, such that they are “expected” to move and come closer to the fixed “host culture”. From these issues the tacit conviction that the minority ought to be willing to forego their own customs and practices, since the ‘culture’ that is fixed is that of the host – unmoving (unchanging?). I think the French ban on religious symbols can be read in this way when we acknowledge that in practice the law affects (by and large) France’s sizeable Muslim population.

Of course the cry that will invariably rise at my attempts to deconstruct integration so far, will be about how I have got the wrong end of the stick and how I am walking over some very clear commonsensical notions. For instance, the integration one speaks about concerns newly arriving immigrants and, is it not only fair, that those arriving ought to respect and, where possible, adopt the customs and conventions of the country to which they have chosen to come. After all: ‘do as the Romans do’. Indeed, do as the Romans do when in Rome on holiday, not when you are Roman, then you have the right, presumably, to shape and affect what the Romans do. {quotes}I suggest therefore that a good marker of integration into a society is the degree to which one claims that society and the right to affect it.{/quotes}

This, I suggest further, is wilfully left out of the integration discourse, which rests too comfortably on the typology I have thus far explored, and has the effect of rendering minorities as always and forever (newly arriving) immigrants.

A good example of this can be seen in the reports that followed the 2001 violence in Oldham and other northern cities/towns. Many of the reports (some by government, but not all) sought to explain how and why the violence came about. Almost all presented a lack of integration and the supposed segregation of communities as the central factor. Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussain have presented a fairly thorough analysis of these reports in their essay on conflict and cohesion in Returning (to) Communities. Here, I want to use some of their insights to illustrate the manner in which the integration discourse associates minorities with newly arriving immigrants, and authorises the same (passive) function to the former as the latter.

The Ritchie report on Oldham for instance, highlights the South Asian communities as segregating because they choose to live in clusters and maintain their own linguistic culture. Bagguley and Hussain note that this emphasis on language is a ‘new turn in the cultural racism of official discourse’.3 In the way the present integration discourse organises its object/s of discussion, therefore, places the English language as marker of “British” identity and, by juxtaposing the minority (in this case: South Asian) against the ‘majority’ via an emphasis on language, as also “White” identity. I want to stress at this point that I am not denying the importance of learning English, but the hidden impulses animating the present discourse, since its emphasis is not on recognising the ‘political, cultural, economic and educational value of having multi-lingual citizens’4 but on the presence of other languages as destabilising factors in ‘integration’. As Bagguley and Hussain aver, a multicultural Britain is all well and good, but it must perforce be a monolingual one, where all other languages are marginalized, devalued, and importantly, privatised.

‘When people do not speak the English language,’ the Ritchie report tells us, ‘this has acted as a barrier to integration. The consequent need to translate documents into the mother tongues as the provision of English as an Additional Language support,’ it carries on, ‘is an irritant to many, though not all white, and African-Caribbean people, because it undermines their deep feeling that “English is the language of this town”.5 Although this is the feeling of the people, according to the report, it is not far from the central belief of the report itself, which avers the unwillingness of some to learn English as a factor in the violence in Oldham. The astonishing fact here is that the report presents no evidence for its claim and, moreover, is oblivious to the glaring problem before it: those who took part in the violence were young men who both could and did speak English!

What the report does therefore is place the blame of the riots, the problem of “integration”, and the lack of social cohesion squarely at the door of the South Asians of Oldham. The discourse not only delimits our thoughts, it seems then, but also blinkers our vision. If the English language – according to the report and the broader discourse in which it is embedded – is a signifier for Oldham, and is racialised as “White” – as indicated by the same report and discourse – then Oldham is also imagined as “White”. Here then is an example of the way in which the minority is positioned as outsider, much in the same way that the newly arriving immigrant is, by common sense, expected to do as the Romans do.

‘When a racist Englishman says, “there are too many Pakistani’s on our street!” how – from what place – does he “see” this –’ asks Zizek, ‘that is, how is his symbolic space structured so that he can perceive the fact of a Pakistani strolling along a London street as a disturbing surplus?’ The answer to this question is that it is from a place etched out by a narrative and sustained by a discourse that ratifies and ‘naturalises’ that place. What Zizek, others and I am stressing is the importance of realising the manner in which discourses operate to shape the very scope of our vision on the one hand, and many a time, the content of that visual scope too. The subtle but devastating impulses that I have explored in the dominant integration discourse, suggests that there is a continuation of the projection of a white Britain and an entrenchment of the myth of an unchanging homogenous culture, with which others (mainly non-whites) must integrate. Yet even as it calls for integration, it preserves the ‘otherness’ of minority subjectivities, since its paradoxical nature needs this constitutive outside/r to continue itself. As such, the discourse engenders alienation and ambivalence in those who receive it through the media, and hence the very discourse that presents itself as a means of understanding and exploring the problems of integration, stands in its way.


1. The minority in this discourse are almost always racial/religious groups, and I will take this as granted, although a closer critique as to why this is and what this means is worthy of exploration.
2. Zadie Smith, White Teeth, (London: Penguin, 2000), p326.
3. Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussain, “Conflict and Cohesion: official construction of “community” around the 2001 riots in Britain”, in, Returning (to) Communities, ed. by Stefan Herbrechter and Michael Higgins, (New York: Rodopi, 2006), p359.
4. Ibid, p359.
5. D. Ritchie, Oldham Independent Review (2001), quoted in, ibid, p360.

About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.


  1. I find that last comment by ‘O.A’ extremly uncalled for. Not constructive in the slightest! Well done Bro. Haider. Great article!

  2. Fatima Barkatulla

    Also….in the wake of the 7/7 terreorist attacks, so often people on the radio were talking about how this governments should not support faith schools because they cause extremism and divisions in society, not allowing kids to integrate etc. No one paid any attention to the fact that none of the attackers went to Muslim Schools. In fact they had not been brought up in religious families at all. They had gone to state schools, and had tasted and lived the ‘British way of life’. They had only come to religion relatively late…so the attacks were used as an excuse to target and demonise Muslim Schools with no valid reason.

    In fact I feel that it is probably religious immaturity that is one of the causes of people turning to violent interpretations and groups…in other words…they come to Islam ‘late’ without having any previous long-term tarbiyah or allowing their Islam to ‘marinate’…and so they are more easily convinced by emotional interpretations and violence as the solution.

  3. Fatima Barkatulla

    Jazak Allahu Khairan.

    Yes, I think that whenever we are faced with a statement or accusation from the government or the media or society, that is exactly what we should do: deconstruct the words they throw at us.

    Unfortunately what has happened is that the dumbing down that has taken place in schools has meant that most of us have quite a poor understanding and command of language and cannot really think logically. We are easily bamboozled by the buzz words thrown at us and fail to question them.

    Here is something very interesting quoted in a book I often refer to for my children’s education: It is called ‘The Well-Trained Mind (A Guide to Classical Education at Home)’ by Susan Wise Bauer. It is something from the book ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ by Dorothy L. Sayers….she says:

    “For we let our young men and women go out unarmed in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects…We have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.”

  4. Mohd Bob (the builder)

    cement and mortar
    all this construction and deconstruction – have we got planning permission?

  5. Interesting
    I found the deconstruction arguments quite valid though the basis of the argument is common sense/ obvious. What I will find more interesting is the authors construction. Then it will interesting if the same author uses his deconstruction arguments to analyze his own construction. And demonstrates an analysis in the context of his deconstruction…

    Keep it up…

    yours layman

  6. one view against another!
    I am a layperson and although i did not digest all the points, I sure did understand the main ones that were very important, without any other middle-person!

  7. You’re a brilliant academic but a terrible journalist. It’d take about five ‘middle people’ to make this article comprehensible to the ‘lay’ reader, and another dozen to make it interesting.

  8. An article for many!
    A very enlightening article which articulates some of our enduring thoughts! In order to take the discussion further, may we argue that in essence such a narative is primarily promoted by the media, who in a culture of ‘alienation and ambivalence’ seek to perpetuate an unethical incitement to hate Islam, and thus, by extension, have declared war on Muslims (of course ideologically – but also physically through their incitement of hatred)?

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