Whether British Arabs or simply Arabs in Britain, Arabs share concerns
Britain’s history with the Arab world spans almost a thousand years, from English kings joining the Crusades in the Holy Land to the British Empire colonising and eventually granting nominal “independence” to a slew of newly minted Arab monarchies in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
As the world became increasingly globalised, former subjects of the British Empire and their descendants have gradually found their way to Britain, either to study, work or to escape persecution in their homelands. These migrants have themselves established families and raised children who are now native to Britain.
"As Arabs may choose to identify according to their national countries of origin rather than as a broader definition of what 'Arabness' means, this inevitably raises questions about whether the discussion is around Arabs in Britain, or whether they are British Arabs"
Among their notable personalities, British Arabs count theoretical physicist and broadcaster Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Hollywood actor Alexander Siddig, and the late Dame Zaha Hadid, one of the major global figures in the field of architecture of the 20th and 21st centuries.
However, and as Joseph Willits of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) emphasised to The New Arab, British Arabs should not only be considered as having value if they are professionals or are high net worth individuals.
“It gets very tricky and problematic to measure the levels of successes of integration of British-Arab communities… not least because of how they can be used and exploited politically to measure so-called ‘worth’,” Willits said.
The debate on the successes of integration tends to focus too much on professionals and perceived high-value skills rather than on what each individual is capable of contributing, according to Willits.
“Debates focus down on the integration of so-called professionals…academics, doctors and lawyers or [those who] bring significant financial capital rather than supermarket workers, other NHS staff or bus drivers.”
In comparison to migrant populations from larger ethnic minority groups, particularly from the Indian Subcontinent, the latest figures from the UK government’s Office of National Statistics recorded in the 2011 census that there were only some 250,000 Arabs living in Britain.
While the results of the 2021 census are due to be released in May this year, the growth of the British Arab population is not expected to have grown by any significant margin in proportion to other ethnic minorities, despite perceived increased migration from conflict zones such as Syria.
Although official British government policy is to oppose the Syrian Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad, it has a dismal record when it comes to resettling Syrian refugees, with UNHCR figures placing the number at just over 11,000, a paltry figure largely blamed on domestic political hostility to refugees.
"It’s important that political parties do more to combat anti-Arab racism and ensure that there are more political safe-spaces for those from British Arab communities to be part of"
There is also the potential lack of homogeneity among the British Arab population.
“When you say ‘British Arabs’, you presume a unified group of people… which doesn’t really apply to the Arabs in the UK or in Europe,” Haifa Zangana, artist and author of Women on a Journey: Between Baghdad and London, a novel about five Iraqi women living in exile in London, told The New Arab.
Rather than identifying as “Arabs” in a broad sense, “there are a number of active societies, associations and clubs, [the] members of which tend to identify themselves according to their individual countries,” Zangana said.
As Arabs may choose to identify according to their national countries of origin rather than as a broader definition of what “Arabness” means, this inevitably raises questions about whether the discussion is around Arabs in Britain, or whether they are British Arabs.
But to some, the distinction appears to be overly academic and unnecessary when identifying problems faced by all Arab communities.
“I have some criticisms of our people, the British Arab community or communities,” Imad Al-Salam, a British-Iraqi property owner, developer, and businessman told The New Arab in a telephone interview.
“I feel we are extremely behind as a community, despite the individual successes of some. We represent the lowest percentile in terms of homeownership for a number of reasons, including religious.”
Al-Salam’s contentions are accurate. According to official government figures, and among all different demographic groups, Arabs have the lowest proportion per capita of homeownership per household.
A meagre 17 percent of Arab households owned their own homes compared to 74 percent of Indian households who even outstrip the White British demographic majority who stand at 68 percent.
“This doesn’t give us the financial security and many of our community are tenants after decades of living here… this is very negative as it holds us back from becoming influential through [having] a cadre of businesspeople, MPs, peers in the House of Lords,” Al-Salam said.
"So long as we live here and it is our home – and it really is our home – then we have a duty to participate and not to allow ourselves to be held back"
While the contributions of all are important to Al-Salam, he believes that other communities have had great success lobbying for their interests because their intellectual and business elites have created the right networks to support their ambitions and were perceived to be powerful enough that segments of the media would not dare cross them.
This was a sentiment shared by Mohammed Kozbar, a community and faith leader of Lebanese origin who is most notable for being one of the people who expelled the highly controversial cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri from Finsbury Park Mosque in 2005 where he was renowned for his hate speech.
While Masri has since been convicted of various terror charges and is facing life in prison, Kozbar and his team have transformed Finsbury Park Mosque into one of the most highly successful mosques in the country in terms of community services and activities, even winning national awards.
“We are a part of British society and therefore we should get involved in all sorts of [walks of] life, including politics,” Kozbar said. “This is especially true because some political decisions have a direct impact on our community whether here in the UK or in the Arab world.”
CAABU’s Willits concurred, but said that British Arabs often faced obstacles that hindered their ability to engage in the political process and stand for election, “including anti-Arab racism”.
“Rife Islamophobia and hostility, as well as hatred of refugees and migrants, all play a seriously detrimental role in ostracising communities from the political process,” Willits said.
“It’s important that political parties do more to combat anti-Arab racism and ensure that there are more political safe spaces for those from British Arab communities to be part of.”
This lack of safe spaces for political engagement has been exacerbated by Britain following the United States’ lead in the so-called “war on terror”, according to Zangana.
“I think since the British government chose to follow the US in its ‘war on terror’ it has begun to change its laws [according to the terror paradigm]. There has been growing mistrust of the authorities by not just British Arabs but also Muslims in general.”
Nevertheless, and despite these obstacles born of discrimination and what Willits described as an “inward-looking” political system, Al-Salam believes that British Arabs have a role to play in British society and ought to engage vigorously.
“You have to be part and parcel of the community in which you live, and you cannot do that… if you make no effort,” Al-Salam said.
“So long as we live here and it is our home – and it really is our home – then we have a duty to participate and not to allow ourselves to be held back."
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues.
Follow him on Twitter: @DrTalAbdulrazaq