In May, two young British men of Nigerian origin murdered a British soldier named Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich, in southeast London.
The event made national and international news. Photos and videos in which one of the men explains his actions were captured by bystanders and circulated widely on social media. The perpetrators, who were born in the UK and had grown up in stable, devoutly Christian homes before converting to Islam, justified the killing as retribution for Britain’s military engagement in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries.
In many ways, the response to this event has been predictable. The British government has started a review of its strategy on violent extremism, which could focus on curbing the activities of “hate preachers,” working with schools to save young people from drifting into extremism, and increasing the powers of surveillance on electronic communications.
Right-wing groups, such as the British National Party and the violent street movement the English Defence League, have capitalized on the Woolwich murder. Their targets have been British Muslims, the alleged threat posed to the “British way of life,” and the “incompatibility of Islam” with a largely Christian country. In the aftermath of Woolwich, attacks against Muslims and mosques have increased, according to the NGO Tell Mama.
It should not be a surprise that there has been an upsurge of reported assaults and harassment of Muslims in Britain, including arson attacks on mosques, given policy and funding moves away from support for cohesion and integration. But to what extent is the alarmist picture of intercultural strife painted by the media and government accurate? Is there a grassroots appetite for communities to be more cohesive, regardless of differences?
Some of the answers are emerging from an Open Society Foundations research project that explores the views and interaction between low-income white and Muslim communities in the northeast London borough of Waltham Forest. The aim of the project is to promote a grounded approach to improved social relations and inclusion shaped by the experiences of local people.
Both groups are often regarded as resistant to change and integration, and have been pitted against each other. In recent days, both communities have been labeled “extremist”—assumed to support either far-right anti-immigrant politics or extreme variants of Islam. The reality, however, is very different from the view presented by the media and government.
For our research, more than 70 residents engaged in six focus groups—three for each community—before coming together in a community study day. The study day enabled them to discuss challenges and opportunities in building greater interaction from the bottom up.
What was clear throughout the research was that both groups embraced the reality of multiculturalism. White participants did not see themselves as a monolithic grouping but as ethnically diverse, with family members drawn from minority communities. Young, white working-class people spoke warmly of their friends from minority backgrounds.
For their part, British Muslim communities, contrary to the usual accusations of self-segregation, have chosen to live in Waltham Forest because of its diversity. This is indicative of “soft integration,” which happens every day in public spaces, colleges, and workplaces. Here communities are not pitted against each other but simply get on with daily life together.
Participants did not view British identity as static, exclusive, or racially linked. Rather they described it as inclusive; white working-class groups viewed British Muslims as being British. As confirmed by the Open Society Foundations’ 2012 report Muslims in London, the majority of British Muslims consider themselves British and as want to be seen as such.
Having spent the last six months listening to people express their views on integration and its many forms, we believe the appalling attack in Woolwich and the inferences drawn by the media and policymakers do not match the reality found in Waltham Forest. Like Woolwich, Waltham Forest has had to deal with the impact of radicalization, extremism, and terrorism on community relations. But today multiculturalism is the norm and reality there.
Participants in the study voiced strong support for several ideas:
- Community conversations mediated by trusted credible community organizations, rather than the government.
- Events like festivals that promote integration through music, food, and culture.
- A new leadership program to expand and deepen advocacy options and attract women and young people.
- A community project, owned, and managed by the community, that could act as a hub for integration initiatives.
Overall, participants voiced disdain for extremism, willingness to work together for common objectives, and the desire to create spaces for community interaction. Such views need to be heard amidst an increasingly volatile debate on immigration, media exaggeration of intercultural conflict, and policy frameworks that have shown a retreat from the virtues of multiculturalism—virtues that likely represent reality for neighborhoods and communities across Britain.
Perhaps leaders need to take note: For every Woolwich there are a hundred places like Waltham Forest.