Baking The Britishness Cake: The organic ingredients of community cohesion
* originally published in Blasting News
Following last week's Finsbury Park mosque terrorist attack, a number of "experts" dashed to various TV and radio channels to argue about community cohesion and take a position on multiculturalism in Britain. Many even criticised the low-key media coverage of the attack, blaming journalists for their white supremacy and whitewash intentions.
The truth is that I am relieved that for once not too much drama was generated, given that the experts' media statements left me with fear and frustration. For these "experts", the community cohesion question is one of race and faith than one of society and equality.
Why am I being so critical? Well, simply because I don't believe that "cohesion" is something that is achieved by flexing muscles, or by telling non-British people what they need to do in order to integrate.
In fact, I believe that the organic concept of cohesion seems to have been approached by British media and policy makers as a list of ingredients that certain individuals – particularly faith and minority groups – need to have in order to be successful in baking the Britishness cake.
At the same time, the human rights discourse at the academic, legal and political levels has not been explored within the context of community cohesion. I have argue many times and I will repeat here, that the community cohesion and human rights agendas are not joined up, and while grappling to build a ‘human rights culture’ in the UK, we wonder how community cohesion can be achieved.
'Community cohesion' and 'human rights' understood
Before I make my point about human rights and community cohesion, I must ask what do these jargon terms actually mean"? The government said that community cohesion exists when "There is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities; the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued; those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities, and strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods".
Paradoxically, however, the government’s focus of community cohesion policy on faith and race provided limited opportunities for thinking about the matter in a holistic way.This approach continues until today whether it relates to the terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, Grenfell Tower or EU immigrants.
As for human rights, they are merely the minimum entitlements that we all have simply because of our humanity. After two World War atrocities, nations came together to agree what they must all protect so that we are all left to live free, fair, respectful and dignified lives independently of our race, gender, sexual orientation, class, physical and mental state, belief or age.
However, the truth is that human rights tend to be portrayed as luxury entitlements used by celebrities, travellers or even convicted criminals who want to avoid punishment or claim compensation for trivial reasons. Human rights are also often associated with ‘political correctness’ or conceived in narrow legalistic terms and being largely of interest to lawyers.
Few people immediately associate ‘human rights’ with their everyday encounters with public services, while only on rare occasions are human rights perceived to be about the individual rather than the community.
Why is our community not cohesive?
To answer this question, we first must accept that our community is not cohesive. But what is community? Is it a place? Is it a sense of belonging? I will define it here as the environment for growing human relations. If we assume that the tragedies of the last 3 months constitute the evidence of rotten human relations in Britain, then what is the cause? Surely, not the weather!
I did not want to make a decision on my own.
So, I went out there and asked 20 "community cohesion" experts including leading academics, politicians and charity leaders (Gavrielides, 2010). For some, community cohesion is put at risk when we fear that our "God given" rights are being compromised. These may include our "right" to have more and better housing or more benefits or better-paid jobs. For others, community cohesion is a problem when people do not feel valued by the government, institutions or others. These "others" tend to be foreigners or people of a different race, or people who are just different!
What do human rights have to do with community cohesion?
First, I will start by saying what human rights do not have anything to do with the EU, Brexit, Brussels or indeed the Queen. Human rights have to do with the way an older lady is treated by her care home, or how a disabled man is left in bed unchanged for four days, or how a child must be treated by her school or parents. I have argued many times that human rights act as a framework rather than as a detailed instruction manual, allowing people to retain their own belief systems.
“A right is only a right if you know about it”, one of my interviewees said. "But why do I need to be an expert in human rights in order to enforce them?", you may ask. The truth is that if you are living in a democratic society, then you shouldn't be asking this question. The onus should lie with the state. To this end, there needs to be a source for public sector service providers – including those in the private sector – on the progression of human rights law in the context of community cohesion in accessible language. Training of civil servants and public sector managers and frontline staff is also recommended. The government, which often is too quick to blame communities, bears the responsibility for ensuring that providers understand and implement human rights in a consistent way.
Misconceptions allow the promulgation of many human rights myths, which severely damage their potential firstly to promote a culture of respect and consequently their use for community cohesion.
The experience of positive relationships between people from different backgrounds and the sense of trust and a shared sense of contribution and belonging will only be felt if it is the product of a democratic process that is truly participatory and enables and celebrates the participation of everyone. “No human exists outside or without a culture – go against that and you have already lost", one of my interviewees said. This is also the force of a human rights concept of equality and of an equality-infused version of human rights.
Human rights require a degree of compromise by everyone.They apply to everyone, but this does not mean that all arguments win or that everyone will be satisfied.
The nature of human rights as basic standards means that as the negotiations are carried out, some (and they might not necessarily be British) may have to compromise more than others particularly if these negotiations involve those who can't speak for themselves or are victims of persistent inequality and disadvantage. The human rights vision of community cohesion is indeed one of respect and understanding, not one of hypocrisy and pursuit of personal wealth, self-interest and power. How this translates into politics and outside articles such as this one is something to be seen.