Citizenship Carnival: What is Integration?

Guest Author: Nadia Fadil

When I was asked to prepare something for this speakers’ corner, the suggested idea was to do something on the headscarf. Considering the fact that I work on Islam and that the successive headscarf controversies have been in the news for more than three decades now, it seemed wide enough of a topic that could touch and open a large discussion.

I however declined. And the reason has not only to do with the fact that debating the headscarf was something I dreaded doing, after countless of panel conversations and publications. Debating the headscarf was rather part of the problem. Part of the mechanisms, through which our societies continuously produce and place boundaries between in- and outsiders, those who belong and those who don’t. Debating the headscarf becomes, consequently, not so much a means to understand this practice, but a modality through which a specific sartorial practice is turned into an object of investigation and conversation. It becomes displaced from its everydayness. It becomes, in other words, something that needs to be integrated.

Integration was therefore the word that I preferred to address. A word that informs most of the research we do. Whether it concerns the EU enlargement, the question of social redistribution or the ways in which cultural minorities and majorities relate to one another. Integration, we have learned in our manuals, figures as the key concept around which the social sciences have emerged. As twin brother to the concept ‘society’, that we owe to the 18th century French Physiocrats who influenced Adam Smith in his quest for an ‘invisible hand’, integration turned into one of the main languages through which ‘social problems’ – also an invention of that same period – could be addressed. This concept would also bear a strong imprint on our relationship to the world and to other cultures, in our attempt to understand the impact of processes of globalization upon what we consider as “traditional societies”.

It is, however, not my purpose to offer an elaborate historical and philosophical genealogy here. In the brief context of this conversation, I rather prefer to problematize this concern with integration – to take it as a point of departure in order to understand the different connotations it invokes and imaginaries it touches upon. For more than simply figuring as a neutral analytical category, the term integration is also a highly contested and controversial concept – one that has been challenged and disputed.

In preparing for this small exposé, I therefore did what social scientists most often do when looking for answers: I questioned people around me. Starting with my mom, whom I always consult on important issues, and who answered: “it refers to the integration between the Sociale Voorzieningen Hogeschool Antwerpen (where she works) and the Artesis Hogeschool!”. Now, my mom is a very wise woman, but this was not exactly the kind of answer I needed. So I went to the world of the internet and sent a call through email and facebook – one of the main social arenas of our times. Clearly, the answers that I will be sharing with you have no generalizable pretension. They are rather the reflection of viewpoints that are held amongst those who are often given a leading role in one of our main contemporary political dramas, also known as the multicultural debate.

Integration passes through the stomach

“Integration means eating couscous on Christmas.” (Myriam)
“Integration means making tajine [a Moroccan dish] with French frites”. (Fatima)
“Integration is achieved when you debate over the question whether a ‘chocoladebroodje’ belongs to the family of the ‘koffiekoeken.’” (Jeroen)

Food. A central marker of collectiveness and one of the primary means through which boundaries are established – something that has been central in the study of culture and has chiefly been examined by Mary Douglas. Whether it is the (problematic) myth of thanksgiving in the case of the Americas, or the multiple exotic restaurants we observe in our glocalized cities, food is the means by which the first contact passes, and the means through which a first exchange and encounter occurs.

Two elements are, however, central in the way in which food emerges here as a marker of integration. The first one is that these examples illustrate the emergence of new, hyphenated identities. Modes of being which, culturally, can no longer be restricted to one social or cultural group. Notions of hybridity and ‘cultural mixing’ figure as the often used terms to designate these patterns of transformation that occur within a multicultural context, which announce the end of pure identities and the continuous intermixing of influences, the creation of new realities – new tastes even in this context – such as the tajine with French frites.

But the centrality of food does something else. Food also creates a bond, it becomes a means to establish social ties. ‘Once salt has been shared you are part of each other’s life’, so a Moroccan saying goes. Sharing food is not without consequences. It binds individuals and creates ties of mutual obligation, reciprocity and interdependence. Food as something that obliges, and something that integrates.

Integration as the quest for cohesion

“For me it is: assimilating the social and moral code of the host society (yet without disregarding your own), learning the dominant language and showing civic duty” (Fouad)

“From a technical point of view, integration is the result of a successful communication between systems that are intrinsically different through an interface. A person from Antwerp with someone from Brussels or a Greek (…) Integration is the successful operation thanks to an “enabler” such as a common language, openness to other societies, willingness to collaborate” (Özturk)

Finding the right language, sharing common values, looking for the right interface. Integration as the endpoint of a negotiation process between different actors who hold different viewpoints on the way in which society operates. The absence of a commonality – or an “interface” – emerges here as a hazard, as it fails to produce the necessary basis by which the heterogeneous elements come to find one another. Norms and values, the collective language, appear here as the connecting dots, as the point of reference that brings this heterogeneity together. A perspective and viewpoint which echoes the Durkheimian tradition that has taught us to think of society as an organic body, in which commonly shared values and norms – in this case language – figure as the necessary rallying points to avoid fragmentation.

This concern with a set of norms and values lies at the heart of how policy makers and the various institutional actors understand this concept. In the case of Flanders, this has been the case at least since the late eighties. While the first definitions around integration drew a distinction between the public sphere (which drew on a requirement of assimilation to public norms – understood as laws) and the private sphere (where one’s culture and language could be fostered), the successive years have observed a gradual increase of institutional bodies that take it upon themselves to ‘integrate’ actors also in relationship to their customs and norms. The various Dutch and ‘inburgerings’ courses that have been implemented since 2004 and rendered mandatory for non-EU migrants are one example of this. The conditional attribution of social housing to non-Dutch speakers, provided that they learn to speak the language in a limited time frame, is another one.

“Integration is being part of the whole, being able to take part to society. It’s the contrary of social exclusion, and it is by no means limited to migrants or minorities”. (Leen)

“[integration] is trying to be together in a bigger whole. In this way, we constantly integrate. A baby goes to day care and needs to integrate later to pre-school and then school and university, work… the individual always needs to find the right balance between herself and the others, society. Today we approach integration far too much from a cultural lens, while this is not necessarily the case” (Ginette)

Yet through its restrictive application to the question of cultural and ethnic minorities, or the question of culture – as pointed out here by Leen and Ginette – integration turns into something else. It becomes a modality through which a sense of demarcation comes to be established between those who are part of society and those who fall outside of it. It becomes not only a tool to incorporate outsiders – but it also draws differences between those who are subjected to this requirement and those who are exempted from it. Integration becomes, consequently, a means to create difference, and to maintain difference.

Integration as control

“Integration is something that is spontaneously associated and linked with ethnic minorities and ‘allochthons’, as if each person born from an ethnic minority needs to be subjected to integration – the same questions are rarely posed to white Belgians” (Hasna)

“Integration is a utopia… that was invented to make sure that an us/them persists…” (Samira)

“You are only considered integrated once you accept silently that someone has harmed you, and when you can live with the idea that fighting this injustice equals adopting a position of ‘victim’. In other words: “Sois integré et tais-toi!”” (Saïla)

“It’s an instrument of control, because this concept is used to draw differences between the real autochthons and the allochthons, and that allochthons will never become real autochthons. (…) It’s power because you can change the rules and make sure people never integrate” (Ibtissam)

Exit visions of commonality and exchange. Enter the experience of control, minorisation (to paraphrase the well-known work of Jan Rath) and the continuous demarcation of those who are ‘in’ and those who aren’t. According to this reading, integration is not so much a means to establish a sense of collectivity, but rather the very modality through which exclusion is produced. Between the ‘majority’ and the ‘minority’, between the integrated and the non-integrated, between the us and the them – as pointed out by Samira.

Speaking about integration draws boundaries, for it establishes a bond between a collectivity that is imagined as homogeneous, understood as sharing common affinities and excluding particular social groups from the latter. It is the boundaries – of which the discourse on integration figures as an important component – that creates the difference between groups, not the groups themselves (as has been centrally argued by Frederik Barth). The language of integration assumes a common language, commonly shared norms and values and a sense of belonging. It assumes a coherent Self that becomes opposed to a other. In the context of Flanders the Francophone other and “allochthon” other (that primarily refers to the Turks and Moroccans), figure as the reference point through which a sense of Flemish identity comes to be established. While the linguistic differences apply for the francophone, the latter no longer does in the case of ethnic minorities of the second and third generation. ‘Norms and values’ consequently emerge as distinctive markers to consistently maintain and cultivate a difference. It is in this respect that Ibtissam’s sentence needs to be read: “integration is power because you can change the rules and make sure people never integrate”.

Integration, however, also appears as a disciplining concept. As a threat – “thou shall integrate!” – that deliberates over the extent of your acceptability, incorporability within this society. “Sois integré et tais-toi”, to paraphrase Saila – for whom this concept figures as a category which brands her position into that of a subaltern. A subaltern that cannot speak – as noted by Gayarti Spivak, or only to the extent that she learns the language of the dominant group, incorporates its values and norms. The important question that emerges throughout these different comments, therefore, touches upon the degree in which minorities can maintain or hold languages and imaginaries that are not ‘readable’ to the dominant groups. Languages that invoke the subjection to God in one’s sartorial practice, that prioritize a strong relationship with what we commonsensically call “the country of origin”, that hold a different reading of the colonial history or the North-South relationship, or which hold a different conception of the very word integration.

Integration as myth and fantasy

The Dutch sociologist Willem Schinkel already famously argued that Social sciences should do away with its focus on integration and ban the latter altogether from its vocabulary. In so doing, he is not alone.

“Integration is rubbish” (Yasmina)
“Integration is a word that is looking for a signification” (Maarten)
“Integration is a myth” (Graziela)
“Integration is like the horizon. It is a point you never reach. It’s an illusion” (Stephan)
“He who integrates is lost” – (Adorno via Sarah)

Should we then abandon the word integration altogether? The different critiques articulated here seem to point towards this direction. For the word integration implies a coherence that does not exist, and compels certain segments of our population to a set of norms that are not shared by all. The concern around integration is therefore first, and foremostly, a concern about oneself. And a continuous frustration over the impossibility of reaching that goal – “integration is a horizon”. The “utopia” of integration, to paraphrase Samira, emerges as a promise of stability and coherence, yet one which can never be achieved (for there will always be an ‘other’ lurking to spoil that fantasy). Abandoning this term by embracing the heterogeneity that constitutes society, emerges, therefore as main alternative. A heterogeneity that is not an exception, but the founding principle of ‘society’. This also means thinking of society in a new way, and conceptualizing integration in a radically new manner. Integration not as the quest of coherence, but integration as the capacity to live through and with this new norm – the norm of diversity and the norm of absence of norms.

Or as argued by Touria:

“In an ideal world integration would mean: questioning all norms and values by way of encounter, confrontation and cohabitation”

And Olivia:

“(Ideal) integration is creating something new together. It is 1 + 1 = 11”

Integration is…

Rather than abandoning the term integration altogether, one could therefore suggest to give the latter a new meaning. Integration as the capacity to take pluralism as startingpoint. Integration as the ability to live in a multicultural and pluralistic context, to abandon the assumptions on the existence of ‘autochthons and allochtons’ and as the competence to navigate the different – and often conflicting and contradictory – expectations that inform our societies.
Let me then conclude with the following sentences by Mohamed.
Integration– he explains – is achieved:

“when comments like ‘oh your Dutch is so good’ become a legal offense”
“when there are no double interviews anymore between two women just because they both share an Arabic background”
“when a ‘rights and duties’ language no longer stands for ‘learn Dutch and you will be all right’”
“When there will no longer be a discussion on whether the term “allochthon” can be used”

Nadia Fadil is assistant professor at Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Center (IMMRC) of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. She works on questions of secularism, multiculturalism and Islam from a critical and post-structuralist perspective. In 2008 she defended her PhD: ‘
Submitting to God. Submitting to the self. Secular and religious trajectories of second generation Maghrebi in Belgium’; currently being revised for publication.

This is the full, slightly revised, version of a lecture she gave on Monday 17 December 2012, at the Speakers’ Corner.

This article is the first of a series: The Citizenship Carnival. Stay tuned!

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