Invisibility of the Arab Community in Britain

By Ali Omar Ermes

It is hard to believe that a community of immense intellectual and financial input to the British society such as the Arab community is invisible. A community of about five hundred thousand people1 in Britain, of which up to three hundred thousand people live or work in London alone, with approximately 200 banks and financial institutions with 150 billion worth of investment and over 10 billion worth of business2 input to the British society and up to ten daily newspapers and weekly magazines, plus about five satellite and radio stations. Not to mention tens of thousands of medical doctors, engineers, professors, academics, writers, poets, film makers, artists, etc on the top of all that, finance experts, political analysts, social experts and voluntary workers, etc.

It is no doubt that this is not making sense at all, if that is the case why the Arab community with all this positive input to the British society is still invisible, why its still not getting the rightful earned place in society, why its full potential is denied? Is it because the Arab community does not want to be a genuine part of the society?

Is it because the British society rejects this community, never mind what they say about equality for all citizens etc, etc? Are there more complex reasons than meets the eye, of which the two previous points are only part, and in spite of the fact that we are not going to be able to answer all these questions in details, but in order to understand the situation, I will attempt to shed some light on the Arabs’ relations to Britain.

Without getting too deep in the past, history records that the Middle Eastern people, who were the ancestors of today’s Arabs, came to these shores before the Romans did, they came to mine and export metal like aluminium from places like Cornwall3 and a few centuries later, Britain became part of the Roman Empire which was ruled by a Roman Emperor who was an Arab from Syria called Philipos, moreover a family of three Roman Emperors, two sons and a father who was a Libyan by descent and birth called Septimius Severus who also died in Britain4 during the second century AD5.

To cut a long story short, the Arab relations with Britain are very old and deep in history. The first Arabic minted coins in Britain were in the 8th century by the King Offah Of Meria6 where he declared his Islamic orientation by putting the words of “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Messenger” in Arabic writings on these coins during his reign7. It is curious that the recent writers of British history hardly mention things like this and I wonder why?!

The nineteen century saw a new engagement between Britain and Arabs and due to the British colonisation of some parts of the Arab and Islamic world, a number of Arabs came and settled in Britain e.g. the Syrian merchants and Yemenis in the South Wales, Sheffield, Manchester and elsewhere8. But the real resurgence of that was after the 1950s, where political traumas in the Arab world caused some Arabs to leave home, some to America, some to Britain and to other European destinations, plus the fact that a lot of them came for further education or for business and settled later.

Never the less, most of those who came in the seventies, eighties and nineties intended to go back as soon as the political situation was reasonable enough to take them back.

On the other hand, living in Britain for twenty or thirty years waiting for a change in the political conditions in the motherlands has its toll on anyone of us. Children grow up to young people with their own hopes and aspirations and new responsibilities on these families begin to mount in a way that becomes very difficult to alter, and new life conditions start to appear.

The fact that you’ve invested all your best years in defending and pursuing fairness on society’s framework including the one you’ve settled in and equality between humans in a hope to maintain justice, encourage good practice, reward hard work and promise good ethics for all humankind. Surely, you will find it very difficult to understand the unfair war that has been waged against the Arabs by the media, the press and by politicians and decision makers here in this country, not to mention the negative effect and harmful results all this has on Arabs everywhere in the world.

The Arab community is a distinctive community. This distinction came about not by colour, looks or attitudes, but it came about mainly by deep residue of subtlety in language, social and cultural values among other things. Therefore, sharing a number of social values and ethics based mainly on religious teachings, with the  rest of the society was and still is part of the fruitful contribution to the society by the Arabs, whose lands in the Middle East was the birth place of religions and civilisations since they invented writing and brought the first laws to humankind9 and the rest is history for the last eight thousand years, rapid human development and ascendance of religions, gave these societies its continuous social experience and very rich history.

It is reasonable for Arabs to feel protective of this history, for them selves and for all humanity. Protecting the Arabic language for the future generations is an important matter at least as important as learning the English language to connect and appreciate the British society, and we can say that about other issues in Art, Literature, Science etc.

This is only a short paper. I do not want to go beyond the essentials. Therefore let me point out some quick ideas, to help both the society at large to understand and value the Arab community, and the Arab community to be able to engage more with the society. This might help increase the visibility of the Arab community and get out of what might be referred to as social exclusion, which could cause racism against Arabs, which nobody wants.

It is the duty of the government of the day, the local authorities and other various institutions of the society to take a close look to the needs to this group of citizens with exceptional circumstances such as the Arabs, and act without delay on good intentions by deeds and money.

• The Arab community needs the whole society to help them preserve their values, their ethics etc, and these are manifested in their language, literature, arts and social practices and above all, in their religions.

• The Arab community wants to see justice, seen and done towards their political and social issues.

• The Arab community will appreciate all signs of valuing their civilisation, which after all was the basis of today’s civilisation.

• Involving the Arab community, in local and national politics can only be done by the engagement and the positive attitude of the social managers in all sectors. That means educating the public for that purpose and for similar issues.

• Appointing members of the Arab community in relevant areas of national and local government to relate and communicate with their own community will help to make properly planned efforts of inclusion more efficient and save time and money.

• Consulting the Arab community in various issues which affect them and the society as a whole will go a long way to break these exclusion problems which hardens feelings on both sides for no good reason.

• Including their art, their literature, and their creative inputs in the mainstream systems of education and in museums, theatres and media institutions will increase the public’s appreciation for their culture and improve community relations.

• Funding and encouraging sponsorship of seriously positive cinematic films and good TV programmes about the Arab community in this country and about their civilisations, values, art, science, will do no harm in helping all sides to fully appreciate each others.

• Considering all these as part of the national strategy and putting money where the mouth is, will be the only way to activate any of these ideas.

1  The Economist 1988.
2  Adel Bishtawi paper for the third Arab community conference 1999, Directory of  Arab-British companies 2001.
3 Ghassan Sepano ‘Arabs in Britain 2002’, Newcastle Museum and Chester Museum.
4  Hutchinson, ‘The History of Nations’, Ogan, ‘The Wonderland of Knowledge’.
5  This Emperor’s son was the one who changed the capital to London, Ghassan Sepano 2001.
6  The British Museum.
7 The British Museum.
8 Halliday ‘Arabs in Britain’.
9 Hamorabi Laws 1728 B.C.E, refer to Faruqi (1986), ‘The Cultural Atlas of Islam’.

Bibliographical Reference:
Darweesh, I ‘Arabs in Britain’.
Halliday, F ‘Arabs in Britain 1991’
Sepano, G ‘Arabs in Britain 2002’
Bishtwai, A ‘The Arab community in Britain, a population map 1999’.
The Economist Magazine 1988.
Hutchinson (ed) History of Nations Vol.11, Hutchinson & Co.
Ogan, E ‘The Wonderland of Knowledge’ Vol.1, Odhams Press Ltd.
BBC ‘Islam UK: an introduction to Islam and the Muslim Community in the UK ‘2001.
Polidori, R (1999) ‘Libya: The lost cities of the Roman Empire’, Konemann.
Faruqi, I (1986) ‘The Cultural atlas of Islam’, Macmillan.

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