National social cohesion should not be sacrificed on the altar of foreign conflicts

Dr Rakib Ehsan

May 17, 2021

Developments in other parts of the world suggest that the democratic health of numerous diverse nation-states is in a perilous condition, with social solidarity increasingly under strain.

The United States finds itself in the middle of a full-blown culture war – a multi-racial nation bitterly divided by severe political polarisation. Former President Donald Trump’s tenure at the White House was an exercise in trivialising the ideological threat of far-right extremism. This included dubiously citing the role of video games in mass shootings in the aftermath of the August 2019 white-nationalist terrorist attack in the Texas city of El Paso which killed twenty-two people.

President Biden has limply described ANTIFA – a violent and destructive coalition of far-left radical organisations – as “an idea” in one of the presidential debates. The level of politically-motivated violence and destruction of private property in cities such as Portland and Seattle that has been allowed to escalate shows how President Biden is very much guilty of downplaying the threat of far-left extremism.

Closer to home, France’s rigid model of secular universalism and culture of ‘colour-blind’ radicalism is increasingly under strain. Social cohesion in the ‘indivisible republic’ is not in good health, with the problem of Islamist separatism dominating the build-up to the next presidential election.

‘Hardliners’, usually young, low-skilled, poorly integrated people who approve of the burqa, polygamy, and the general supremacy of Islamic rules over France’s secular laws, are estimated to make up one in four French Muslims. Incredibly, a recent poll suggested that half of the French people would support military intervention to restore public order – without democratic consent and political permission. It is astonishing that France’s troubles are not covered more by the British mainstream media.

Further afield, the re-ignition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has demonstrated how fragile community cohesion is in the State of Israel. Violent clashes have erupted in mixed Arab-Jewish towns such as Lod and Bat Yam – with gruesome footage flooding social media. In the northern Israeli town of Acre, rioters set fire to one of the country’s most famous restaurants. Uri Buri, quite ironically, was a local symbol of co-existence.

Meanwhile, the birthplace of my paternal grandmother, India, is now the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. While it boasts the largest multi-party parliamentary democracy in the world, the rise of Hindutva nationalism under Modi’s tenure as prime minister has sought to place Hindu identity at the heart of national belonging – in a country which is technically a constitutionally secular republic.

When all things are considered, Britain is reasonably well-positioned – but it must guard against complacency. In the event of declining social trust and increased political disaffection, community relations risk unravelling at an alarming pace in a multi-racial, religiously diverse nation-state. This can be further accelerated by perceptions of inequality of opportunity in a competitive market economy.

Post-Brexit Britain’s greatest challenge is to strengthen social cohesion and confidence in the democratic system of governance. Events in other parts of the world threaten to undermine relations between different faith groups living in Britain. But national social cohesion and domestic inter-faith relations should not be sacrificed on the altar of foreign conflicts and religio-political disputes.

We must appreciate the progress we have made as an advanced diverse democracy – but also understand that this relatively peaceful multi-group co-existence should not be taken for granted. There is no room for resting on our laurels when it comes to perfecting Britain’s liberal democratic society.


Written by Dr Rakib Ehsan

Dr. Rakib Ehsan is an independent expert in social cohesion and institutional trust.

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