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Christina Patterson: We need to talk about integration

Never mind the deficit, multiculturalism is the biggest challenge we face. In a globalised world, what kind of society to be? This is not about race but culture

Wednesday 04 August 2010 00:00 BST

Call me Hitler. Call me Joan of Arc. But you probably won't, to echo Melville in Moby-Dick, want to call me Ishmael. In the week since I wrote a column about "the limits of multiculturalism", I've been called an awful lot of things. A "stupid, vile bitch", "a bigoted toe-rag", a racist and an anti-Semite. The blogosphere, according to colleagues, has gone mad, and so has the twittersphere, and so has the nuttersphere, or whatever it is you call the message boards.

Since I don't spend my days prowling the internet for mentions of my name, I missed most of it, which is probably just as well. But I didn't miss my inbox. I have never known anything like it. All week, the emails have poured in. A (from his punctuation) young (and from his name) Muslim man accused me of "Muzzie-bashing". An older (or more literate) one plumped for its politer sister, "Islamophobia". Two Pakistani doctors, in impeccably courteous prose, expressed their outrage that I mentioned Pakistan in relation to female genital mutilation. (They're right that it's not widespread there, but it does take place.)

One man, with what a social worker would call "anger-management issues", and what my mother would call a very limited vocabulary, demanded proof that some of the people I'd mentioned were Jewish. The frock-coats, hats and ringlets were, I told him, a bit of a clue, though they could, it's true, be a clever red herring. But why not call me a liar, too? And, indeed, the many residents, and former residents, of Stamford Hill, who added their stories to my own? (There was the woman who was told, in a well-stocked butcher, that there wasn't any meat. There was the journalist who was knocked off his bike by a Hasid in a Volvo, who then drove over it and away. And there was the young council worker who tried, every morning, to greet her neighbours, but in the end gave up. "I just don't understand," she wrote sadly, "why saying 'good morning' to someone who is a neighbour can be so wrong".)

Call them all liars. Particularly the ones who said they were Jews. The one, for example, who said his Hasidic "brethren" drove him "crazy"; the one who grew up in there in the Thirties, and no longer felt welcome, and the one who wrote that he was "raised Hasidic" and still dressed in "the full garb" but that he "agreed" with my "article". "Hasidim do lack a basic education in manners," he said. "They have many archaic beliefs about Goyim... the worst one of which is the Talmudic statement that every Goy wants to kill you... We are," he said, "actively taught in Cheder that Goyim hate us." He hoped, he added, that I would not "report" on him. Don't kvetch, Lev! Your secret is safe with me.

If criticising some of the social skills of a group of people who bear as much relation to mainstream Judaism as the Amish do to mainstream Christianity is anti-Semitic, then yes, absolutely, call me anti-Semitic. Three people who emailed me didn't use the word, but implied it. (Many in the nuttersphere used much worse.) But of the literally hundreds of emails I've received, only about a dozen have been negative. Two young Moroccan men were keen to express their gratitude. So was a man who signed off his email by saying "in case you're wondering, I ain't Brit n' ain't white either".

The vast majority, as far as I could tell from their names, were British-born and, as far as I could tell from their anguish, the kind of liberal lefties you'd expect to read The Independent, the kind who, if they were unfortunate enough to glimpse a headline of the swan-stealing-immigrant-scrounger variety, would empty their pockets for the Romanian beggar at the ATM.

And they were all practically weeping with relief. One man asked me to marry him. (Sure, but can he afford the dowry?) One woman said she wanted to hug me. Another spoke, a little worryingly, of Joan of Arc. A retired vicar said that he "would be sad" to see the popular C of E primary school in his village go, but that "if that is the price to be paid for preventing the educational segregation of our children, so be it". One woman spoke for nearly all of them when she said: "We are beginning to feel that if we express opposition to any of the views/ideologies/cultures/philosophies of any group from which we differ, we will be branded racist, or anti-religious, and therefore open to be abused." Take it from me, honey: you will.

Never mind the deficit (which won't go on for ever), this is the biggest challenge we face. In a globalised world, with often porous borders, in which our economic good fortune will always be a magnet to those who lack it, and with birth rates in immigrant communities considerably higher than our own, what kind of society are we to be? This is not about race, but culture. If, in a few years, we were all brown, it wouldn't bother me at all. But it would bother me a great deal if a significant proportion of the female population felt they couldn't leave the house without covering their face, or if more young women were being murdered by their relatives for sullying the "honour" of their family, or if more young men were married to young women from another country they've never met.

What we're talking about, of course, is fundamentalism. Which, under the laissez-faire Labour years, has flourished. And so, at a time when mainstream British society has passed laws to ensure that homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals, and women have the same rights as men, and freedom of speech is a basic human right, bigger and bigger swathes of that society are being indoctrinated with the view that homosexuality is a sinful aberration, women can't function without the protection of a man, and plays and novels (and columns and cartoons) must not offend.

This is an impossible intellectual balancing act, and it's going to trip us up. If it's "judgemental" to say that some beliefs are better than others, then let's, please, judge away. Why else did the Almighty/Jehovah/Allah/the-monkeys-from-which-we-evolved give us our brains? I can, as I wrote last week, certainly "tolerate" my neighbours' dress sense and their manners. I will never tolerate their mutilation of their eight-year-old daughter's genitals or their 16-year-old daughter's forced marriage.

Many of our immigrant neighbours could, of course, teach us a thing or two about the importance of community, and of the extended family, hospitality and self-control. (If you want lessons in deferred gratification, talk to a Muslim during Ramadan.) We can always learn from other cultures. Every day (in spite of apparently being Nick Griffin's secret twin) I bless the fortune that allows me to live in the most interesting city in the world. For those who've suggested that I move, I'm sorry, but I won't budge. If the Hasids are sometimes a bit irritating, and the soy-latte-sipping, farmers'-market-frequenting chatterati (of which, no doubt, I'm one) so sanctimonious that it makes you want to slap them, the Africans, Pakistanis, Caribbeans and Kurds make up for it.

Where our "multicultural" society works, it works because people from different ethnic groups live, work and socialise together, and because they fall in love, marry and produce brown Britons. Where it doesn't work is where individual cultures cut themselves off from their neighbours, and insist on interacting only with their own. It's in these cultures that people learn to be suspicious of everything that's different. And it isn't a long journey from suspicion to hate to attack.

We have to work out what kind of society we want, and the most effective way of getting it. To do this, we have to talk about it. If that means we're branded as racists, and bigots, or Islamophobes, or anti-Semites, or even just stupid, vile bitches, then so be it. You can call me what you like. But don't let's call the Brits a bunch of cowards.

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