British Arabs start to find their political voice

British Arabs start to find their political voice
Despite large, well established Arab communities in the United Kingdom they have never been well represented in politics. But that is starting to change with a more assertive younger generation.
5 min read
01 May, 2015
Arabs are deeply rooted in British society but have lacked political representation (Getty)
When the British people take to the polls next week they will be voting for who they want to represent them in the Houses of Parliament. A parliament in which no British Arab has ever held a seat.

Similarly nobody of Arab descent has ever made it into the House of Lords or represented the UK in the European Parliament and the representation of British Arabs among the political parties' membership lists is also comparatively low.

The waves of migrants who came from Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere across the Arab world are in many ways deeply political and politicised and yet they have historically been disengaged from the British political establishment.

While the political voice of British Arabs has not developed the cohesiveness or volume of many of the other major migrant communities settled within the UK’s shores, a younger generation of political hopefuls are starting to emerge.
Laying roots

Some 50 years ago it was politics that drove Abdul Ilah Tawfiq from Baghdad to London but once he’d found sanctuary it was to science and teaching to which he would devote his energy.
     There was a lot of feeling that the British establishment were in cohorts with the dictators

Tawfiq’s political activism as a young man in Iraq resulted in him being jailed more than a dozen times and then tortured during the early days of the revolutionary Baathist regime.

Having heeded his father’s advice to get out while he could he limited his social activism in the UK to Iraqi civil society groups and would in time preside over the Iraqi Association in London and the Association of Iraqi Academics.  

While the UK offered the opportunities to build a safe family life and a fruitful career the political establishment stood squarely at odds with what many Arabs such as Tawfiq had been fighting for before migrating.

“There was a lot of feeling that the British establishment were in cohorts with the dictators and regimes back home under whom many of us suffered, especially the leftists and secularists,” he said.

The violent legacy of the regimes that many of the Arab migrants to the UK had left behind, and the understanding that the government often shared close ties with them, instilled a great sense of caution in the recent arrivals.

“Many of us had been involved in anti-imperialist struggles back in our home countries so it did not fit for us to get involved in politics, we focused instead on establishing ourselves in our professions,” reflected Tawfiq.

The burden of the Britain imperialist past and ongoing involvement within the region was not the only barrier to Arabs feeling they could integrate into political life in their new society.

Divisions among the British-Arabs also stifled the development of any coordinated political activism. In the post colonial period national and ideological movements competed for influence across the region and that reverberated through the different Arab communities who had come to settle in the UK.
     More youngsters now feel they can be part of the establishment and make a difference, while maintaining their Arab identity

With the passing of time the sense of being outside the system or constrained by the politics ‘back home’ has dissipated and there is now a growing number of British-Arabs making inroads into the political establishment.

“There is a generational difference, you see more youngsters now who feel they can be part of the establishment and make a difference, while maintaining their Arab identity,” observed Tawfiq.

The new hopefuls

It was the fears of an elderly neighbour crossing a busy road that led Bassam Mahfouz into politics. From a humble campaign he led to get a pedestrian crossing at the junction in his north west London borough he is now a cabinet member for the Labour party in his local council.

In the last general election he ran for a seat in parliament and although he failed in his first campaign his ambitions have not been tempered. Born in Lebanon during the early years of the civil war in the 1980s he left with his family when he was only four years old. After a spell in Kuwait his father, a journalist, finally secured a job in London and that is where the family have lived ever since.

While Mahfouz’s initial motivations to enter politics were purely local he observed that even though the 2003 Iraq invasion isolated many British Arabs it also spurred many others to  become politically active.

“The sentiments were so strong it galvanised a lot of young British Arabs and encouraged them to get involved in politics beyond protests and marches,” he said.

Where Bassam Mahfouz failed in his 2010 bid to become the first British Arab to be voted into parliament Layla Moran hopes she can succeed in the coming elections.
     I realised that the UK is such a diverse place and this only enriches our politics and parliament

Born to a Palestinian mother and a British diplomat father the education specialist is standing as a Liberal Democrat candidate for a seat that her party held for 13 years before losing it to the Conservatives by the narrowest of margins in 2010. In short, she has a solid bedrock of local support and a good chance of winning.

“For a long time I didn’t think I was British enough to get into politics but then I realised that the UK is such a diverse place and this only enriches our politics and parliament,” she told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

In a recent dinner she hosted with British Arabs Maron noticed there was a huge interest in her campaign and an appetite to get involved in politics but there was scant coordination, something she would “love to be a catalyst” to change.

If elected Maron says she would want to speak pro-peace, rather than specifically pro-Palestinian because “ultimately they are the same thing.” She does however feel that had she been able to address the parliament during the recent debate over the symbolic vote for recognition of Palestine, “my voice would have somehow carried more weight as a Palestinian than a pro-Palestinian campaigner.”

Given a chance Maron would like to challenge what she feels are common British view of Arabs, which “are not very positive at the moment,” and while acknowledging that the Arabs living in the UK are from a diverse collection of communities she also feels there is “a kinship” among them that she would be proud to represent.