Love Thy Neighbour; ANALYSIS ...and Equality for All Trying to Help Some Communities Risks Alienating Them and Reinforcing Divisions, So a New Approach Is Needed to Treating All People Equally, Says Dr Chris Allen, Director of Research and Policy at a Birmingham Human Rights Charity

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Byline: Dr Chris Allen

Having watched the images of communities overcoming adversity as a result of the recent floods in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, you cannot help but empathise with the problems that the people living in those areas must have been facing.

When events like this arise, many are quick to stress the sense of community spirit that gets people through such times.

In many ways this message can be reassuring, confirming to people that not only do communities still exist but they are a positive influence and force for good.

Very few people would disagree with this. Yet if you had looked closely at the television images of those queuing for fresh water, you would have seen that the people themselves are widely diverse and different: a community of communities maybe. Yet despite this, the same old sense of community and what's good about it appears to remain.

The dictionary definition of a community is one where people live together in one place, sometimes with a sense of common ownership.

In more recent years however, there has been a tendency to use the term community to lump people together on the basis of their identity, stressing this aspect of the definition in preference of those merely living together in one place.

The increasingly popular notion of community overlooks or even eradicates that necessary recognition of diversity and difference that vibrant and real communities - such as those overcoming adversity in Gloucestershire or in today's Birmingham - typically contain.

In the coming decade Birmingham and its inhabitants will become "super-diverse". To ensure that Birmingham as community therefore remains a force for good, ensuring that everyone is treated equally, will become increasingly central to the city's ongoing success.

If this is not achieved, then a lack of equality and the division of people into single identity communities could be easily used to not only identify but, more worryingly, single out and even scapegoat particular sections of society.

We only have to look back over recent months to see how events in Birmingham cause some to hold their breath in the hope that a concerted backlash against certain groups of people fail to materialise.

For Birmingham as indeed elsewhere, this understanding of community can be problematic and can play into the hands of the mischief-makers who want to exploit the tensions and fractures that also clearly exist.

When social and community challenges therefore arise, for many in society those challenges and "problems" belong to "them" rather than "us". In doing so, not only do we see them as being clearly different from us, but we also see them presenting a challenge to us in terms of our values, way of life, culture and so on. Because of this, not all people in our community are treated equally.

This attitude and approach to understanding and identifying difference is sometimes reinforced both in politics and also by spokespeo-ple for particular groups, or dare I say it, different communities.

Take for instance the Governments Preventing Extremism Together (PET) programme that is currently being rolled out across Birmingham in the form of projects (like raising awareness of Islam and training imams). By funding Muslim groups and initiatives only, the programme runs the risk of inadvertently attributing the "problem" of extremism to Muslim communities alone. In this way extremism - and more importantly preventing extremism - becomes something for most people in the city that is more about "them" than it is about "us".

With the emphasis being placed upon what Muslims should be doing, an opportunity is being squandered that might allow society as a whole to take a shared responsibility for preventing extremism together through promoting common ownership of the problem.

An approach that sees people and communities as having a single identity alone was recently identified as problematic in the findings of the recent Commission on Integration & Cohesions report. …