Fundamental British Values and Muslim Identity in Public Life

Fundamental British Values and Muslim Identity in Public Life

Ajmal Hussain and Nasar Meer

The Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper identifies a number of barriers believed to be preventing integration in Britain.  These include alleged residential segregation, school segregation, religious and cultural norms inhibiting public engagement (mainly for women), labour market disadvantage, and lack of social mixing. While the evidence for some of the bolder claims is mixed and certainly more contested than the paper allows, one of the prevailing means of overcoming these barriers is deemed to include interventions in the education system.  For example, the Green Paper’s proposals include a desire to “work with Ofsted to ensure that there is strong coverage of schools’ promotion of Fundamental British Values (FBV) and integration within its new inspection arrangements” (page 14).

In this way the Green Paper bundles together involuntary structural inequalities with attitudinal issues, but does so in a manner that signals a continuation of recent ‘values based’ integration approaches.

Why is this a problem?  The Green Paper adopts the idea of FBV not from recent consultation, but from broader political discourse going back to 2011 and specifically the definition of ‘extremism’ that was outlined in the Government’s counter-terrorism Prevent Strategy as follows: “Extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas” (page 107).

This is neither new thinking nor consistent with the prevailing characterisation of a British national identity that has evolved, and continues to evolve, by being remade over time, and not least by black and ethnic minorities.[1] The definition of FBV instead is that used in the 2011 Department for Education (DfE) which identified that upholding ‘Teacher’s Standards’ included “not undermining the fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty”. A few years later the then education secretary Michael Gove announced the publication of statutory guidance that all schools would be required to promote FBV through ‘Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural’ development (SMSC).  Linked to this was the expansion of Prevent duty guidance, which explicitly used FBV within the definition of extremism, in ways that are also present in the Green Paper where it insists that extremism can be anticipated where there are ‘negative cultural norms’ (page 12).  As a consequence, the Green Paper endorses and promotes the idea that some minority communities are a security risk not because they incite or engage in violence or activities that might do so, but because they bear values that do not conform to those insisted upon by the government of the day.

There is a clear schism then between the nature of the consultation and community engagement that the government wishes to undertake as part of its broader integration strategy, and the implicit assumptions of that strategy itself. This is borne out in first-hand experience. In April 2018 one of the authors attended a ‘community’ event held in one of the five integration areas earmarked in the Green Paper to receive initial funding and support. The event was organised by a local activist who opened by stating that following recent hostilities in the area – brought on by an EDL march and the ‘punish a Muslim day’ letter – locals increasingly felt they were being left out of the national conversation. Following this short opening address, the floor was given over to a number of senior local politicians who delivered speeches about the value of diversity and the importance of recognising we all come from different places and times. None of the speakers seemed comfortable offering reflections for a shared future; instead most retreated to policy speak about desiring and designing community cohesion. There appeared to be a sense of perplexity among those present, reflected in the sudden discussion of strained race relations (if we can call it that).

It was only when the Mayor gave his address that there seemed to be something that might resemble collective sentiment in the audience. The Mayor recounted an event he had attended at the local Methodist Church about which he remarked: “the minister gave a speech that could’ve easily been a civic address”. This point seemed to have an effect that no other had so far, with the Mayor offering some authority and anchoring to a discussion that was becoming increasingly vexed. At a time when people expressed concern toward new problems (anti-Muslim hate, white disenchantment) and worried that there were only old solutions (community cohesion); the Mayor appeared to offer some direction. What seemed to come across in the space that this community event had become was that the church might offer an organising site for British values.

The above scenario prompts the need for a broader discussion about faith-based identities in public life, and yet the Green Paper signals a continuation of policy over the past decade or so where governments have made overtures to multi-faith based identities in public life, but resorted to a type of majoritarianism in policy.  For since 2010, we have witnessed a move in public policy toward foregrounding the nation’s Christian heritage. Near Neighbours, for example, which was the government’s most recent intervention in this area was administered by the Church of England and activated the parish structures in its administration. Requiring applicants to have knowledge about this traditional system, it worked to reinforce ecclesiastical authority of Christian religion in the administration of public affairs.

FBV in this respect marks an easy retreat into a master signifier – that of Christianity – which operates not only as a default identity position for the nation, but in a way that becomes set against minorities.  The current Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, for example, recently chose to give a speech at the Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership, where she said, “One of those values as articulated in the definition of British values is ‘mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith’. It is a happy fact that almost every Church of England school we visit takes that value seriously… But tolerance and respect does not mean that we should privilege all belief above criticism. Ofsted inspectors are increasingly brought into contact with those who want to actively pervert the purpose of education. Under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology.”

This slippage is evident in the numerous references in the Green paper to perceived problems that have arisen as the UK has become more diverse over the past half-century and more.  For example, the structures of leadership and representation within minority ethnic and religiously defined communities that are believed to lead to separatism and segregation (page 17); or the lament at the loss of the ‘local’ as areas are felt to become unrecognizable following the arrival of newcomers (pages 20-25); and the perceived tendency among minority communities to hold on to customs and norms from overseas and should swap these for FBV (pages 43-49). Indeed, each chapter of the report features in its rationale some references to the alleged threat posed to FBV from new dynamics in the economy, society and within communities.

FBV in this context represents a set of codes whose primary function is to reaffirm qualities of Britishness and national identity in a way that has specific implications for British Muslims. There is undoubtedly an implicit narrative around the threat of ‘Islamic radicalism’ that connects FBV, SMSC, Prevent and this Green Paper. These efforts to reify Britishness have heralded a dynamic in which the reification of Britishness occurs where the interests of British Muslims as stakeholders in both nation and national security are diminished. The community event cited above is an example of the fatigue that may be setting in among British Muslims in relation to assertions of belonging in the UK. As repeated surveys have shown, Muslims express attachment to Britain at higher levels than other minority groups.[2] The danger here is that the outcomes of these strategies could sustain a focus on issues around the fringes of radicalisation, rather than allowing a meaningful exploration for how the dynamics of these related strategies might contribute to the alienation of presently ‘integrated’ Muslim communities.

A recent research project conducted by researchers at University of Manchester offers some worrying insights into the effects of such stigmatisation on cohorts of young people, who narrate experiences of mistrust and suspicion directed toward them. At the same time they also embody a certain promise in connecting across differences though volunteering and activism. The social and civic engagement among ‘integrated’ Muslim communities – in for example the response to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower and aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing – did not require the organising authority of the church or the state or commandments to FBV. Taking such things into account is more than a missed opportunity, it is a design of an approach in which ideological commitments to FBV are elevated above formal data and the kinds of findings that might emerge from a sincere and purposeful consultation.

Uberoi, V. and Modood, T. (2012), ‘Inclusive Britishness: A Multiculturalist Advance’, Political Studies, 61(1), 23–41.
[2] See, for example, Karlsen, Saffon and Nazroo, James Y. (2015) ‘Ethnic and religious differences in the attitudes of people towards being “British”’, Sociological Review, 63(4).


Ajmal Hussain is Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Manchester. Nasar Meer is Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Edinburgh,