Basit Mahmood is a Cambridge Politics graduate and Chairman of Conservative Future in Luton. I met him earlier this year when I visited Luton at his invitation to speak on politics on behalf of the Conservative Muslim Forum.
He recently mentioned that he was setting up an opinion / blogging website on the issue of improving social cohesion. I agreed to contribute an article. His website "Building A Shared Future: Working for Greater Social Cohesion" was launched recently with mine being the first article on it. The article is quite short as I was writing to a strict word limit.
You can read it below. While there are many things that governments need to do, I always prefer to focus on what individuals themselves can do to make the world a better place.
Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He is writing in a personal capacity.
Dictionary.com says that cohesion is “the act of sticking together.” That definition is as good as any in this context.
Two lines of dominoes placed side-by-side on a table do not cohere. There is nothing connecting them together and the slightest shake of the table will separate them. Compare that with the pieces of a completed jigsaw puzzle. They stick together because the pieces are interlinked.
There is an old saying that birds of a feather flock together, reflecting the simple truth that people normally want to spend most of their time with people like themselves.
Looking at the components of my own identity, it is normal for me to spend proportionately more of my time with people who are: Muslims, of South Asian ethnicity, highly educated, well off, interested in politics etc. The problems begin if “proportionately more of my time” changes to become “all of my time.” Such behaviour risks decomposing society into separate groups which have no linkages because they do not interact.
The ultimate question is who do we mean by “We”? If citizens who say “We” mean all Britons, then we have a cohesive society. If when I say “We” I am only thinking of other British Muslims, something is going wrong with social cohesion.
While the government cannot control how individual citizens behave, many of the decisions it makes will influence their behaviour.
One simple example is the provision of community institutions. In Manchester there is a “Pakistani Community Centre” which will have received funding from either central or local government. While the centre is open to all, its title has the effect of deterring people who are not of Pakistani ethnicity from getting involved with it. The London Borough of Newham has a clear policy of not funding community institutions which are expressly designed for one segment of the community only. The government should make this policy mandatory for all national and local government institutions.
Greater care is needed regarding the provision of schools. In my view making school provision local has become a shibboleth. It has the effect of encouraging residential clustering around schools and one can easily find schools where one ethnic group is overwhelmingly predominant.
Oldham Metropolitan Borough had two such schools, one overwhelmingly white and one overwhelmingly Asian. It acted decisively by building a new school to replace both, so that the pupils experienced a more mixed school environment.
An explicit requirement for schools to aspire to have heterogeneous pupil bodies should be set, and given priority over minimising the home to school distance travelled. Personally, from the age of 11 I had a three-mile bus commute to school and found that no problem.
Ultimately society is the reflection of the decisions that each of us takes as individuals. The starting point is to be aware of the risk of spending all of your time with people who are “just like you.” As well as being bad for society, it also limits your personal development.
Instead, get involved with things that interest you without looking out for your background group, whether that is a religious or an ethnic group. For example, if you are of Asian ethnicity and interested in cricket make a point of joining a high quality cricket club without worrying about the fact that most of the existing members may be white.
Over the years, my own interests have included playing chess, politics and my professional activities. In each of those I joined organisations (a chess club, political parties, local professional bodies) without being concerned that I was the only participant who was from a religious or ethnic minority.
More conscious effort may also be required. I am aware of mosques which operate soup kitchens feeding needy people of all backgrounds. While the clients are in this case diverse, because the soup kitchen is operated by people from the mosque, the team running the soup kitchen is not diverse. If the mosque were to partner with a local church to operate a combined soup kitchen, there would be a significant payoff in the advancement of interfaith relations and social cohesion.
I appreciate that it does take courage to go into new environments where you may not know anyone else and where all the other participants may be from ethnic, religious or social backgrounds very different from yours. Even in my 60s I still find myself experiencing such situations. Be reassured that subjecting yourself to such initially discomforting environments will be a much more developing experience than sticking to the comfort blanket of mixing only with people who share your religious beliefs and who come from the same ethnic group as you do.