Assimilation vs integration

© Peter Sanders
© Peter Sanders

The ethnically diverse nature of Muslims communities in Britain has been at the centre of debate about what it means to be ‘British’, and the place of Muslims within ‘British’ society. Should people from ‘minority’ communities be expected to assimilate, or integrate? Indeed what is the difference between these terms?

Assimilation can be described as the process whereby outsiders, immigrants, or subordinate groups become indistinguishable within the dominant host society, eventually conforming to the existing cultural norms of society. In contrast, integration involves adding to the existing culture which in turn transforms and enhances society. Many Muslims reject any call for assimilation. For them, assimilation is tantamount to a loss of cultural, religious, ethnic identity, and an expectation of conformity to the norms of the majority. But most British Muslims are enthusiastic about integration in order to live, and to let others live, in a fair and free society. In fact, it can be argued that the majority of young Muslims are already integrated. Most third and fourth generation Muslims were born in Britain, have been to school here, and live and work in local communities that contribute to society at large. Perhaps not surprisingly, Muslims are sometimes critical about calls for their ‘integration’ where the assumption is that ‘they’ will integrate into ‘our’ ways as if ‘our’ ways (whatever they are?!) are somehow ‘better’ or superior.

Instead, many British Muslims are keen to engage in a more dialogical process which sees their religious and cultural traditions contributing to British society. Muslims are often told they need to ‘assimilate’ or ‘integrate’ to become better members of society. But is this call really about religion? Are the thousands of ethnically British people who have converted to Islam similarly asked to assimilate or integrate? Christianity was once itself an imported Middle Eastern religion, so perhaps the pressure on Muslims ‘to fit in’ is aimed more at their cultures, rather than their religion?

Integration is not about losing identity. Rather it is about maintaining identity and belief while being able to celebrate differences and work with others in civic society. This is not to say that it is an easy process; for many Muslims, aspects of British culture are at odds with their own norms and traditions. Integration is perhaps best seen as mutual compromise, a process that requires mutual respect from all parties. We might use a culinary metaphor to make the point. Assimilation is rather like the process of making soup, where the ingredients lose their identity as they are blended together. Integration can be likened to a fruit salad where the individual fruits, with their varying colours and sizes contribute to the beauty of the dish.

In the next part of the course, we will see how the British Muslim photographer Peter Sanders explores the notions of assimilation and integration. Through the lens of his camera, we see a wide range of British Muslims living and working as ‘integrated’ citizens in our society.


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