Report on CAABU Monthly Meeting with Zeinab Badawi

by Lana Nusseibeh

The House of Commons, 6th December 2000

On the 6th December, Zeinab Badawi addressed a packed CAABU monthly meeting at the House of Commons. Her subject was 'Diaspora Arabs: Identity in a multicultural Europe.' The former channel four TV presenter, now an advisor to the Foreign Policy Centre and a council member of the Overseas Development Institute was clearly well equipped to tackle the identity issues now faced by the ethnic communities living in Europe and particularly, the Arabs.

The question of national identity increasingly dominates the political discourse of Europe and the European Union and was a topical focus for the discussion. The main premise of Mrs. Badawi's talk was that xenophobia is on the increase across Europe. She cited many examples to prove this point, ranging from racist crimes to the prejudicial yet accepted discriminatory language used by politicians. An example offered by Mrs. Badawi was that the Danish Peoples' Party running in local elections earlier this year were brought into power on an anti-immigration platform. Her belief is that 'European xenophobia' is particularly directed against Arab communities.

Her discussion attempts to locate the broad theoretical grounds as to why Europe is becoming less rather than more tolerant as its society becomes increasingly more diverse. Globalisation, she argues, contrary to popular belief, is a catalyst in this development. As the phenomenon of globalisation blurs national boundaries people are beginning to retreat into a more isolationist and individualist sense of self. The devolution of power from centre to localities, for example the recently created Scottish Parliament has contributed and is an indication of this retreat away from a national multi-cultural consensus. The minority communities in the United Kingdom form roughly 6% of the total population. The Arabs are a silent section of that 6%. As she stated 'The Arabs are the invisible visible minority' This is indicated by the sparse information available about this large minority in government reports and other surveys. Anti-Islamic prejudice and heightened fears of Islamic terrorist groups forms a large part of the prejudice directed against the Arabs. Across western Europe, commonly held opinion associates all Arabs with armed Islamic groups such as those in Algeria, Saddam Hussein and terrorism in general.

Mrs Badawi offered a broad and largely theoretical solution to the problems faced by minority communities, in particular the Arabs, across Europe. She makes the cogent point that the main problem of a national identity based on culture is that it instantly creates a mainstream majority culture that are white and predominantly Christian. She argues that all European Union countries must move away from any definition of national identity based on culture or ethnicity towards one based on what she calls 'popular patriotism.'

Essentially, she argues for a national identity based on universal civic values against which all communities are equal and a new national language that moves away from tolerance towards acceptance of minority groups as part of a national whole. Mrs. Badawi believes that the only space for individual cultural ethnicity is the home. The political space outside the domestic should only allow for civic identities.

Yet as she points out, it is up to the Arabs and other minority communities to effect this change. They cannot continue acting as the guests to a host nation. British Asians alone bring about 50 million pounds a year to Britain and the Arabs also offer a positive contribution to the British economy.

Despite the many changes envisaged by Mrs. Badawi, in terms of re-shaping the political dialogue in European Union countries towards minority groups and re-defining the basis of national identity, her message is clear. The diverse Arab communities living in Britain and Europe need to define their interests and assert themselves in the existing political structure, in order to change it.

For more information contact:
Gillian Watt on mailto:wattg@caabu.org?subject=Badawi Report or +44 20 7832 1310

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