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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 00:18 GMT 01:18 UK
Analysis: The UK's ties that bind
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs, BBC News

Mohammed Sidique Khan in a video message aired after the 7 July bombings
London bomber: Mohammed Sidique Khan hated his own country
Forty years ago, the then Labour government struggled to come up with the words that described how it saw Britain changing into a multicultural society.

Roy Jenkins, the then home secretary, came up with the definition now in the sociology text books. Integration was not a "flattening process of assimilation," he declared, "but equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance".

A year on from the London bombings, the debate is firmly fixed on whether or not mutual tolerance has been pursued at the expense of something more practically designed to create unity - and the government is under pressure to answer tough questions.

Its new Department for Communities and Local Government, headed by Ruth Kelly, says it is looking for the answers - starting with a Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

So what will the commission actually do?

Segregation and conflict

The 13 commissioners have experience of running local projects designed to improve community cohesion. The body is headed by a Darra Singh, a young, respected council chief executive who comes from Bradford and runs Ealing in west London, one of the diverse areas of Britain.

The commissioners have until next June to look at what causes tensions, segregation and conflict - and what practical steps can be taken to create a more cohesive society.

Communities secretary Ruth Kelly
Ruth Kelly: New emphasis on communities
It will tour Britain and look at the best and worst examples of getting people from different backgrounds to, at the very least, have an understanding of each other.

The commissioners are expected to look at practical measures - such as how children attending different faith schools get to know each other - and more political sensitive issues such as the rise of the British National Party, the claimed increase in segregation and political or religious extremism among the young.

Ruth Kelly says that she expects it to help take tough decisions and to say no to unreasonable demands from minority groups which don't fit into a national picture. This is a significant change in tone that nods towards uneasiness over immigration.

But Mr Singh has also been told by the secretary of state that his brief does not extend to questioning two key policies - the government's support for faith schools and, separately, foreign policy's relationship to radical Islamism.

For his part, Mr Singh is carefully avoiding advocating any specific projects, saying he wants people to come through an "open door" with examples of local projects that unite communities.

Commissions and crisis

It is by no means the first such review to come amid fears of crisis. Lord Scarman's famous report into the 1981 Brixton riots touched on many of the issues that remain live today - divisions in society along racial or cultural grounds linked to economic and social conditions.

INTEGRATION COMMISSION: KEY AIMS
Examine why tension grows
Help politicians break down barriers
Study how communities tackle extremism
Research strong and successful communities
Much more recently, Ted Cantle's damning verdict on the 2001 riots in northern towns warned of communities living "parallel lives".

Even Britain's race watchdog has had a go, concluding there was no single route to solving community tensions.

The Home Office's own Preventing Extremism Taskforce, launched after the London bombings, was a commission of sorts. But its recommendations have only been partially acted upon with many of the Muslims who took part disappointed.

So some community leaders are already questioning the commission's raison d'etre, fearing it's what Whitehall enjoys most - talking rather than necessarily spending.

The more charitable view of the commission is that it will indeed have some clout because it is full of people with experience of grassroots action and backed by the new Department for Communities which is keen to make an impact.

Tahir Abbas of Birmingham University, who is studying extremism and government's responses, said he hoped the new focus would lead to more sophisticated policymaking.

Dr Abbas played a key role in launching one of the taskforce's main planks, a proposed professional standards body for mosques and imams. It is this kind of practical grassroots work that strengthens society, he says.

"We have had 1,000 years of immigration and, yes, we have a reasonably successful multicultural society. However we have sharp inequalities," said Dr Abbas.

"But the recent spotlight on culture and values, away from notions of equality and diversity, has not helped, particularly in relation to Muslims."

I think the government is aware that society is fragmenting into tribes - but if they are talking about creating common values for different faith groups, what are they?
Munira Mirza, multiculturalism researcher
"In relation to extremism, it is a problem of Muslim communities and how they have let themselves down in relation to poor leadership, strong patriarchy in the home, gender inequalities and limited capacities of Imams.

"But the communities need specific targeting and dedicated resources.

"Senior politicians also need to be a little sensitive as to what their statements may be doing to already disillusioned young people. The vulnerable are very susceptible right now as they have nothing to hold on to and nobody to direct them."

But according to some critics of multiculturalism, the problem is actually government itself.

Munira Mirza, a researcher into multiculturalism, argues policymakers have elevated complex cultural, ethnic and private differences to matters of public policy importance - encouraging communities to define themselves in narrow ways because it attracts the most attention and funding.

She claims the proof of Whitehall's alleged folly is the sudden appearance of demands from other faith groups - Sikhs, Hindus and Christian activists - as they have seen the government talking to Muslims.

"I think the government is aware that society is fragmenting into tribes," she says. "But if they are talking about creating common values for different faith groups, what are they?

"The government's approach is wholly preoccupied with Muslims and that in turn tells people that being a Muslim is the most important part of them.

"They should stop talking to people through the prism of religion and start talking to them as citizens."




SEE ALSO
Reid calls for migration debate
06 Aug 06 |  UK Politics
Analysis: Taking on extremists
14 Aug 06 |  UK Politics
Step up extremism fight - Kelly
14 Aug 06 |  UK Politics

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