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Trust in Crisis: The Emergence of the Quiet Citizen reports upon the findings of a three-year Woolf Institute research project

August 8, 2017

This project examines the effect of, and responses to, different forms of crisis on relations within and between communities in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. It comments on the post-2008 financial crisis and resultant ‘austerity’, mass migration, the integration of minority communities and the impact of recent terrorist violence and  implications for both experienced and perceived security issues.


In London, justification for the continued application of so-called austerity measures (in essence, a suite of measures designed to reduce the structural deficit) focused, in part, on the financial crisis that began in 2008 (critics argue that the measures also reflected an ideological preference for a smaller state). This produced immediate consequences for public spending. The effects were felt by services supporting the vulnerable and economically disadvantaged, and by an overstretched police force addressing perceived insecurity and real danger in the light of the 2017 terrorist attacks in Westminster and London Bridge. Longer-term consequences included generating, directly or indirectly, some of the discontent that characterised those voting for Brexit in the EU Referendum of June 2016.


A crisis of security continues in Paris, precipitated by the attacks of 2015: first in January at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, then in November at the Stade de France and Bataclan theatre. The attacks and subsequent police and security investigations in France and Belgium renewed a focus on community segregation, and the lack of opportunity among minority populations, particularly amongst North African Muslim communities. Scholars and commentators have connected the security crisis in Paris with wider issues of laIcite, the separation of church and state, and the political and legal grounding this affords the ongoing restrictions to religiously symbolic dress.


In Berlin, the refugee crisis and its effects have dominated the news and public debate since 2015, producing a wide range of civil society initiatives and engagement to support struggling state authorities. However, following a major terrorist attack carried out by Anis Amri on Berlin’s large Christmas Markets in 2016, if not before, discussions about self-styled Islamists and the state’s struggle to provide security revealed processes of social polarisation. This has redesigned the relationship between citizens, local volunteer groups, faith-based civil society actors, and state institutions at local, regional, and federal levels.


A deep economic crisis in Rome has been exacerbated by a political one in the wake of the success of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement during 2016 local elections in Rome and Turin and the instability of the current coalition government. The unprecedented arrival of large numbers of African migrants in Italy added further pressure, compounded by the unwillingness of other EU countries to support relocation schemes and demonstrate European-wide solidarity.


Key finding I: The emergence of the ‘quiet citizen’

Our research revealed that the social and economic challenges faced by communities across Europe are breeding new forms of citizenship, based on shared social purposes and more active involvement in public affairs.

Key finding 2: Increased social and political engagement by local faith communities

Our research has revealed that the challenges faced across Europe have galvanised groups within faith communities, with the effect that many are now increasingly engaged within social and political spheres.

Key finding 3: New communities shaped by shared social values

Our findings suggest that social bonds of trust and solidarity among the local groups we met are shaping new forms of community based on shared social values that transcend identity, ideology and belief.

Key finding 4: The greater impact of local structures Our findings revealed that investment in local structures has a greater impact on the management of crisis. Local governments and volunteer organisations administer provision, confronting direct and immediate needs in times of crisis, particularly where state institutions are unable to provide.

Key finding 5: The negative effects produced by overuse of the term ‘crisis’ Although widely-used, and whilst it provides a framework and the departure point for this study, the term’s overuse creates an overall narrative that can be problematic.


The Trust in Crisis Report makes the following policy recommendations in line with the themes of Citizenship, Locality and Language. As for the key findings, this section offers a summary of the recommendations. For a more detailed discussion, please refer to the full report.

Recommendation I: Celebrate the ‘quiet citizen’

We recommend an award for ‘everyday’ individuals who excel in their support for others facing social and economic hardship. The award could be given following nominations by relevant local groups or community organisations. The award will applaud those who give selflessly to others, especially where doing so involves stretching out across social, religious and cultural divides.

Recommendation 2: Support dialogue

We recommend the creation of full-time positions to coordinate or support dialogue among religions and other minorities in major urban centres of plurality and diversity following the model set by the Berlin city government. This is needed particularly in Paris and Rome. The role could provide a neutral space for local faith and cultural groups, establishing platforms for positive dialogue and exchange. This is not simply a practical solution to allow exchange, but the role could create an important institutional point of contact and illustrates recognition for the presence and role of religious or cultural identities in urban life.

Recommendation 3: Strengthen local resources

We recommend an increased investment in local government and the strengthening of civil society organisations, especially in times of crisis. Both can fill the void of resources and care that centralised structures are not always able or willing to fill. Recognising the strengths of the German federal model, we welcome greater devolution of state powers as represented by the introduction of directly elected mayors across the United Kingdom, and argue that greater devolution is favourable in France.

Recommendation 4: Acknowledge new forms of religious citizenship

We recommend the acknowledgement of new forms of religious citizenship built in times of crisis. Religions and religious identities remain important to many in society. Further, our research shows that religiosity and dedication to civic life do not exclude each other; therefore, such emergent forms of religious citizenship should be acknowledged and supported. Further, it is recommended that the changing nature of local faith groups is more often recognised as a source of trust and social cohesion during times of social and economic challenges. Cooperation between state authorities and faith groups, as well as with other representatives of minority communities, should be strengthened to show official support for changing practices of civic life.

Recommendation 5: Encourage public bodies to foster greater social cohesion We recommend that European governments continue to develop the establishment, and empowerment, of ministries responsible for social cohesion. This move would not simply address the factual need for greater state involvement in the management of pluralism in diverse societies, but would also communicate to the public that governments take seriously concerns from both majority populations regarding the direction and velocity of social change and those from minority groups challenging social norms. Such bodies must necessarily involve minority community representatives at the highest levels.

Recommendation 6: Limit the negative effects of social media We recommend developing more responses to tackle and reduce online abuse of minority groups. Social media play an increasingly important role in public perception, including the experience of crises. Social media platforms are also used frequently to promote hatred and division by spreading false information (such as so-called fake news) and conspiracy theories that seek only to complicate and frustrate coexistence and understanding. A failure within European administrations to monitor and control virtual spaces has exacerbated the insecurities felt especially by minority groups. Authorities should cooperate with grassroots actors and others to guarantee debate in safe virtual spaces. Further, rules governing social exchange in the offline world should be applied with equal vigour in the online world without any undue restrictions of freedoms.

Recommendation 7: Promote contact across social divides

We recommend that European governments promote initiatives that increase interaction across religious and cultural divides. Contact is inevitable for the development of bonds of intercultural trust. Targeted social policy, for example, complemented by strong local institutions, can reduce problematic ghettos, large-scale marginalisation, and distrust among communities.

Recommendation 8: Use the term ‘crisis’ more carefully

We recommend caution around use of the term ‘crisis’. Whilst it provided a useful lens through which to undertake the research reported here, sensationalist and inflationary use of the term is dangerous and leads to the depreciation of democratic compromise and negotiation. Wherever possible, we recommend the use of alternative terms to describe social and economic challenges. We recommend that governments follow the lead offered by the work of the ‘quiet citizen’: in most cases, scenarios and challenges described using the terms ‘crisis’ and ‘crises’ are manageable rather than hopeless.

This work of what we call ‘quiet citizens’, who seek to improve social relations and do good in times of austerity and hardship, is not given as much public attention and coverage as populist anger, with negative consequences.’ Politicians and state authorities ought to recognise such contributions and support them actively. The Mayor of London’s new citizenship initiative is a promising step in this direction — particularly also in the wake of insecurity resulting from terrorist attacks and a dangerous rhetoric to divide communities on faith lines.

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