Social challenges to the British way of life

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2007, 12:00am

In the two years since the July 7 London bombings, attention in Britain has increasingly been focused on the sociological and cultural context from which the attacks, and their perpetrators, emerged.

It has now been recognised that the defeat of Islamist terrorism will not come about by military means alone, but in combination with long-term concerned efforts to address this sociological and cultural context at home and abroad.

However, there remains little agreement as to the true nature of this, and thus what lessons actually need to be learned.

Last month, Britain's Commission on Integration and Cohesion - set up a year after the attacks - published its final report. The British government had cited a lack of integration among immigrants as the primary cause of the bombers' discontent. Thus, the commission was mandated to examine how Britain is being affected by diversity, migration and globalisation, and how it should respond in the future.

The report - whose recommendations included establishing specialist integration teams and giving out 'cultural briefing packs' to new arrivals - has been greeted positively in some quarters, but with significant contempt and disgust within numerous others.

While some welcomed it as a well-meaning attempt to bring together Britain's diverse populace and address the societal factors that have allowed terrorists to recruit members, others have characterised it as the latest example of the 'head-in-the-sand' approach that allowed 7/7 to transpire in the first place.

The commission has been accused of creating a 'fantasy Britain', in which communities exist that all share and respect the same value systems and moral reference points, despite the evidence to the contrary.

Even groups from established minority communities took issue with the commission's basic assumptions and recommendations.

Some black groups, for example, complained that their experience in Britain has proved that integration does not itself create equality, and that real cohesion is prevented by racism.

Economic and social equality, they argue, enables integration, with the reduction of racism increasing cohesion - points the commission totally failed to recognise.

The July 7 anniversary will come just over a week into the reign of new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and it will be under his stewardship, for now, that these profound challenges will have to be addressed.

In his inaugural speech, Mr Brown hinted at his likely approach, stating that while he intends to meet 'the concerns and aspirations of our whole country', change will be needed 'to protect and extend the British way of life'.

What exactly the 'British way of life' is, and what policies he intends to employ to 'protect and extend' it, remain a matter of some debate and speculation. This is, after all, a political hot potato, with any policy approach likely to offend one group or another. Yet, decisive action regarding Britain's social challenges must now be a government priority.

If it is not, Mr Brown will be courting social catastrophe.

Hagai Segal, a terrorism and Middle-East specialist, lectures at New York University in London