Out of sight, out of mind?

Posted on Monday, December 20 @ 19:08:26 GMT

Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi, 
Chairman, Arab Media Watch

Published in the January 2005 launch edition of the English-language, British-Arab magazine Sharq.

What do a Moroccan graduate in Willesden, three Lebanese students on Edgware Road , a Syrian student in Knightsbridge and an Iraqi woman in Kilburn have in common? If you're waiting for a punch line, don't. Each has paid a high price for what should be an innocent source of pride – their Arab heritage.

In June 2004, Moroccan Yasir Abdelmouttalib was left brain damaged, paralysed and almost totally blind in what the Guardian reported as a "vicious attack" by three boys who "taunted and spat" at the 22-year-old, who was then "repeatedly punched and kicked and struck in the head with a heavy roads weepers' broom." A police officer reportedly saw a group leaving the scene laughing.


In October, during Ramadan, the Lebanese students were attacked by five white men who reportedly shouted: "Do you want us to kick you out of the country?" One of the students was left critically ill and hospitalised, and his brother and friend, both 19, were injured, in what the Evening Standard described as an "unprovoked attack".


A month later, Syrian Adnan Said, 23, lost his eye after eight members of the Household Cavalry, the army regiment responsible for protecting the Queen, beat him and smashed a bottle in his face.


"I was talking to my friend in Arabic and they started swearing and shouting at us. I could feel the racism," said Said. "It was all 'fucking Arabs', 'fucking sand niggers'…'you dirty fucking foreigner'.…It was all very intimidating. I ignored them and kept walking…but they threw beer over me. I was really annoyed and turned round. The next thing I knew, one of the men broke a bottle in my face. I fell to my knees holding my eye, blood all over me, just thinking about trying to get away."


The men followed him, punching him in the face. "I was just thinking, why, why are you doing this to me? I couldn't get up and I just heard more smashing glass – they were throwing bottles at me."


He was saved by doormen at the Wellington who bundled him into the nightclub and had to barricade the doors to stop the attackers. "The pain in my eye was unbearable – it was torture. It was like someone had stuck a knife through my eye," said Said. "These people acted as if it was war. I thought there would not be this problem in London , but there are people who hate us."


Less than three weeks before Christmas, a 25-year-old Iraqi woman was hit in the face with a toolbox, kicked and spat at, and subjected to racial abuse by a man who tried to pull off her hijab.


There may well have been more recent victims, but researching for this article made me realise the extent of the difficulty in finding such cases, and the impossibility of getting statistics on the issue of anti-Arab racism.


The Commission for Racial Equality had no such information on their website, and I was puzzled to be told by them that they had "insufficient resources to be interviewed".


The Home Office had no such information either, though press officer James Cox offered to send me a statement condemning Islamophobia. Farah Ikram, manager of the London Stakeholders Team at the Mayor's Office, said she could probably obtain facts and figures on Islamophobia, but not Arabophobia. Both accepted my response that not all Arabs are Muslim, most Muslims are not Arab, and thus statistics on Islamophobia are no indication of the level of Arabophobia.


Ikram said the best that could be done is to estimate the number of anti-Arab attacks from Islamophobic attacks by taking into account the proportion of Muslims in Britain who are Arab. Besides the fact that Arab Christians are left out of this equation, there are no firm figures of the number of Arabs in the country because we are not listed as an ethnic group in the population census. We therefore have no identity, we are the "other", a problem the National Association of British Arabs is trying to convince the government to remedy in the next census, as knowing the size and distribution of Arabs in the country would help community development in a multitude of ways.


Ikram said the problem with finding statistics on anti-Arab attacks is that when they are reported, they are either classified under Islamophobia or, ethnically, as "other". Indeed, there is no Arab ethnicity in the British Crime Survey, which Cox sent me.


But Arabs have a responsibility too. "They should make their voices heard, take their case to political leaders and the police, and not remain silent," said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. "Governments react to clear public concern." He said many anti-Arab attacks go unreported because people are "fearful" for themselves and their families, or because they come from countries where it is often best not to be vocal.


Safa Sawi, head of the Arab Club of Britain, believes Arabs are also reluctant to report incidents because they have little faith that they will be taken seriously. Though she urges them to "integrate more into society to show who we are", she said she has many stories of Arabs feeling more alienated after reporting an incident.

Indeed, the Guardian reported that the Islamic Human Rights Commission, which has been helping Moroccan victim Abdelmouttalib, "claim that Scotland Yard seemed keen to establish whether the victim had any links with Islamic extremists. They say that officers took evidence from Mr Abdelmouttalib's residence. His friends claim they were asked what mosques he attended and whether he often changed his mobile phone. Questions are also being asked about NHS treatment, because health officials expressed concern about making long-term arrangements for Mr Abdelmouttalib before he earned permanent residency."

Said's attackers were swiftly returned to work, and the Times reported that "many in his circle" have criticised his hospital treatment, having had his first surgery to try to save his eye more than 12 hours after being admitted.

In July, the Crown Prosecution Service decided it would not prosecute Robert Kilroy-Silk, who was referred by the CRE to the police after his anti-Arab tirade in the Sunday Express in January last year, in which he claimed that Arabs have contributed nothing to civilisation, that they are "suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors", asked why people should worry if the "war on terror" destroys the Arab world, and concluded: "Who says that all cultures are morally equal?" The right-wing media, including the Express newspapers, staunchly stood by him.

"People happily write and say racist things about Arabs that they would not dream of saying about blacks or Jews - and usually they get away with it," wrote the Guardian's Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker, in January 2004. "Where racism is concerned…freedom of speech has to be tempered by restraint. But whatever applies to one racial group has to apply to them all. It is no good having one rule for blacks, Jews and the Irish, and another rule - or none at all - for the Arabs."

Regardless of the lack of information on anti-Arab attacks, and the reasons for this, there is a consensus among Arabs and others in Britain that this phenomenon has increased since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, the September 11 attacks, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq . Indeed, it is difficult to find an Arab who has not experienced some form of racism, especially in the last few years. For instance, I and others in Arab Media Watch, which monitors and lobbies the British media for objective coverage of Arab issues, have become used to receiving hate mail, in particular the phrase "the only good Arab is a dead Arab", and never more so than during and since the Kilroy-Silk saga.

"The explanation lies partly in international politics but also in the negative stereotypes of Arabs that have become deeply imbued in western popular culture," wrote Whitaker.

Caabu's Chris Doyle puts it down to "sensationalist", "stereotypical" media coverage, which "demonises" Arabs. Sawi says the media should rectify this by giving Arabs more representation, "to show our real side".

But it's not all bad news. Doyle says the very events that many say have spurred anti-Arab attacks have caused people to "open their eyes" and ask: "What have we been doing?"

Whitaker says Arabs and Muslims "have become much more media-conscious, actively monitoring what is said about them and complaining when they feel they have been treated unfairly." Indeed, the backlash against Kilroy-Silk, spearheaded by the Muslim Council of Britain and AMW (which Whitaker mentioned specifically), resulted in the BBC sacking him as a presenter.

There are many successes to speak of, by several well-established, incredibly hard-working but inadequately funded organisations. Help them. They are here to help you.

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