THE BRITISH ARAB
By Dr Anthony McRoy PhD
The Voice of Britain’s Arab community By Dr Anthony McRoy ‘BRITISH’ ARABS?
The United Kingdom today is a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-faith community. People from a multitude of ethnic groups now call Britain home, and there is the feature of inter-ethnic marriage, making racial classification progressively more complex. Included in this rich mosaic are British Arabs citizens – perhaps 500,000 of them. They originate from a wide spectrum of Arab countries – almost everyone. There are Arabs of Iraqi, Palestinian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Moroccan, Sudanese, Somali, Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, etc. origin in the UK. In fact, and this is frequently overlooked – or possibly deliberately ignored – Arabs are arguably the longest-resident non-European ethnic group in the British Isles (that is, apart from Black slaves). Their presence is largely a consequence of Britain’s colonial past. In the 19th century Yemeni seamen called Lascars sailed with British ships, and some stayed in Britain when their ships docked, and began working in the docks, related industries, or the burgeoning rail network. London’s East End, Tyneside, Liverpool and Cardiff became centres of small Arab communities. By 1948 there were nearly a thousand Arabs in Tyneside. They married local women, thus giving birth to the hybrid British-Arab identity that many native-born British-Arabs, especially those of mixed ancestry, are now establishing. In the 1950s, many of these migrated to Birmingham and Sheffield. A number of Somalis from British Somaliland also settled in the same areas as a result of serving on British ships. Frequently overlooked, but vitally important, the traditional trading skills of Syrians and Lebanese brought them to ‘Cottonopolis’ – Manchester. The famous Arab historian Albert Hourani was born there.
MODERN ARAB PRESENCE Large-scale Arab immigration began after 1945, with Palestinians fleeing Zionist ethnic cleansing, Egyptians and Sudanese coming for professional advancement, and later in the 1960s Moroccans seeking a better life or seeking more political liberty than was found at home. Political repression in the home countries has continued to be a major reason for Arab immigration, and in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s Iraqis, Egyptians, Sudanese, Algerians, Somalis and Gulf Arabs immigrated. Wealthy Gulf Arabs also settled in the UK. Greater London is the main centre for British Arabs, with about 300,00 in the Capital. There are also traditional areas of Arab settlement, such as Sheffield, where many Yemenis moved to work in the steel industry. Many Arab immigrants, whether coming for economic or political reasons, always had the hope of returning home one day. However, as they got jobs, bought houses, married native British women and had children born here, it has become increasingly clear that the ‘hope’ of return was actually the ‘myth’ of return. ‘Home’ is now Britain.
THE FUTURE FOR BRITISH ARABS British Arabs are a racially and religiously diverse community. There are Arabs who are Black, Brown and White. Of course, the situation is more complex with the burgeoning second generation who are sometimes of mixed heritage. About 30% are Christians, mainly Egyptians and Lebanese, and include Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Protestants. The only Arab pastor in the Church of Scotland is Rev. Samuel Hosain, author of an excellent pamphlet entitled Israel Reassessed. According to Father Bishoy Makar of St. Mark’s Coptic Church in London there are 17 Coptic churches in the British Isles, with about 15,000 families.
Among the Muslims, there are both Sunnis and Shia, the latter mainly Iraqis and Lebanese. The principal of the Muslim College in London is Dr Zaki Badawi, of Egyptian origin, and the publisher of Britain’s leading Muslim magazine Q-News is Fuad Nahdi, of Yemeni heritage. The chairman of September’s huge anti-war/pro-Palestine rally was Anas al-Takriti, a leading figure in the Muslim Association of Britain. British Arabs are equally diverse in terms of work. There are labourers, shopkeepers, but an abnormally large number of professionals, especially doctors. Sir Magdi Yaqub, the renowned surgeon, Zeinab Badawi, the famous TV journalist, and Eugene Cottran, Britain’s only Palestinian judge, and the Sawalha family of actors demonstrate that the community has very able people in its ranks. The wife of George Galloway MP is an Arab. The challenge for British Arabs is to make their mark in Britain as a community, rather than just individual attainment, especially in politics where there are no Arab Parliamentarians and few local councillors. They must fight the all-pervasive anti-Arab racism that goes unchecked, especially in the media, and strengthen the community by uniting above its regional/ethnic and religious differences. Finally, their task is to establish a unique hybrid British-Arab identity for the British-born generation, preserving the best of Arab heritage, whilst combining this with British culture to give birth to an exciting and dynamic British-Arab identity. British-Arabs can play a unique role in creating understanding between the UK and the Arab world: there is enough ability in their ranks to act as such a bridge – and now there is sufficient will to match it.
ANTI-ARABISM Edward Said and Rana Kabbani have both observed that denigration of Arabs is the last socially and politically acceptable form of racism. What else could explain the West’s slow genocide of Iraqis? Or the failure to condemn the Apartheid nature of the Zionist state and its ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians? Attitudes that would be unacceptable towards Blacks and Jews are seen as proper and normal against Arabs. Can we really imagine a Hollywood movie where the ‘good guys’ were Arabs? Why does our Government not combat anti-Arabism? Anti-Arabism is a pervasive prejudice, crossing the political divide. In 1944 the British Labour Party passed a resolution on Palestine, demanding that ‘Arabs move out as the Jews move in’, and called for the proposed Zionist State to include not only all of Palestine, but large parts of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Labour has never apologised for this obscene resolution. Hollywood is a prime perpetrator of anti-Arabism, with films like Exodus, True Lies and The Siege. The message Hollywood sends is that Arabs are all either tyrannical, sex-mad sheikhs, who steal blonde Western women to molest in their harems, or hate-crazed fanatical terrorists. Either way, Arabs are presented as a threat. There has been a deafening silence from the Government about anti-Arabism in the media, for examples over headlines such as Arab pigs out of Britain and Murdered by Arab scum (try substituting ‘Black’, ‘Jewish’ or ‘Asian’ for ‘Arab’ and ask yourselves if such a headline would ever see the light of day!).
It is no use moaning about this. Matters will not change unless and until British-Arabs make them change. They must use the liberties and advantages of UK citizenship to lobby their councillors, assembly members, MPs to start combating anti-Arabism, so that the term becomes well-known and is seen at least as unacceptable as anti-Semitism. Cinemas should be bombarded with complaints from British-Arabs when they show anti-Arab films. It would also help to hold a conference on the issue, with a report exposing all facets of ‘the last acceptable form of racism’, to ensure that this all-pervasive prejudice finally becomes unacceptable. The Commission for Racial Equality has now begun to take tentative steps to redress the situation, by meeting with representatives of ACF/NABA on 16 December. In a very positive encounter, the CRE official listened sympathetically to the points raised by Arab representatives, such as complaints of political marginalisation, socio-economic discrimination, ‘hate speech’ and the negative impact of Anti-Arabism in the media and entertainment industry. Further meetings are planned. This is a major step forward for the community, and British Arabs should send messages of appreciation to the CRE on this count, urging them to issue a report on Anti-Arabism, and the undertaking of pro-active combating of hate crimes and hate speech against Arabs.
OPERATION ARAB VOTE Many Arabs originate from countries where is little or no liberty. In many such states, and not only Iraq, the incumbent romps home each time with over 90% of the vote. Free speech is severely limited, and attempts at political mobilisation lead at best to imprisonment, possibly exile, or worse, execution. The ever-present Mukhabarat (Secret Police) watch to quell any opposition. It is scarcely surprising that British Arabs are often unsure how to use the rights of their UK citizenship in terms of voting. Especially after some confrontation with the West, such as 9/11 or the Gulf War, Arabs prefer to keep their heads down or think about ‘returning’ home if they can. Yet it is precisely in Western states that the opportunity for ending the oppression of the Arab world exists. Palestine was lost because, in the words of US President Truman, he did not have ‘thousands of Arabs’ among his constituents. The situation is very different now, with around 4 million Arab-Americans and 500,00 British-Arabs. Their electoral activity if properly mobilised could help restrain imperialist adventures. By doing so, they will make their own position more secure. Western politicians are not going to upset an organised voting lobby, as the pro-Israeli lobby has demonstrated in both Britain and America.
Another problem, for Muslims, is whether it is permissible for Muslims to participate in ‘non-Islamic’ politics. Most Islamic scholars, such the Syrian Sheikh Yacoubi, agree that such participation is both halal and even essential. After all, The office of Prime Minister, at least in terms of its mundane aspects, has affinities to the concept of Amir, and Parliament corresponds to the Majlis al-Shura. The best service that British-Arab Muslims can render to the Ummah in Palestine and Iraq is to use their votes to help their suffering brothers and sister. There is now an active British-Arab community determined to make its mark in British society at all levels, including the ballot box. It must do so, to combat the unimpeded rush of anti-Arab racism from the media, the pro-Israeli lobby and the BNP. An organised British-Arab vote would make them change their attitudes. On this basis, the community leadership will be mobilising British-Arabs and encouraging a bloc, tactical vote for candidates considered sympathetic to British-Arab community concerns. There is a wealth of talent and expertise in the community, but this has not been recognised by British officials, such that there are no Arab MPs or even Peers and very few candidates.
Previously, party representatives have confined themselves to repeating Foreign Office statements, and make little attempt to understand the domestic considerations of British-Arab citizens. By exercising their democratic right to vote, the British-Arab community – whose votes could be crucial to the outcome in several constituencies – will seek to alter these circumstances. They are ready to play their part in British society; tonight, their questions will examine if British parties are willing to help the British-Arab community perform this contribution. Blair has said he envisions the day when Britain will have a Black or Asian Prime Minister; we should press him to say he envisions the day when the UK will have an Arab Prime Minister. How can this be done? By forming local electoral committees now in conjunction with NABA. Arab churches, mosques and community centres should invite candidates to pre-election meetings and grill them as to where they stand on issues of domestic anti-Arabism, the marginalisation of British-Arabs by the CRE, and by the parties themselves, and also about the plight of the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples. Candidates should be told that Arab electors will vote as a united community for which ever candidate can offer them the best deal – on issues like providing Arabs with community centres, increased political representation, better health provisions, a more Arab-friendly educational curriculum, noting the giant contributions of Arabs in history. ‘Operation Arab Vote’ could lead to the end of the community’s ‘invisibility’ and its emergence as a strong, influential body of voters, able to defend its interests as UK citizens, and aiding its suffering brothers and sisters in Palestine and Iraq.
BRITISH-ARAB CULTURE Preserving Arab culture in Britain is no easy task, given that there are few Arab community centres, and such are very far apart. The lack, until recently, of community representation also hindered this. The ethic diversity of the community has also been an obstacle. Can this be overcome? The formation of ‘Arab Communities Forum’ provides an answer to this. It is vital to organise united British-Arab cultural events of all kinds to preserve the Arab identity in the UK, and to ensure it does not fragment. Furthermore, the native-born generation must play its part, applying Western cultural forms in music and literature, poetry, etc. to traditional Arab music and expression. This behoves community leaders to reach out to their youth and encourage them in this endeavour and to stage events that show not just that British-Arab youth have retained their Arabness, but are also sitting comfortably with British culture. This is vital, if those who have grown up in Britain are not to forget their Arab heritage as an irrelevant migrant hangover. People outside the community will also be interested to witness the emergence of a hybrid British-Arab culture. This in itself will encourage the integration of the communities.