Under-researched and largely invisible, British Arabs have great potential

British-Arab communities are largely invisible, often ignored as a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) community or subsumed merely as British Muslims.
Saturday 21/09/2019
British enough. Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon Layla Moran.  (Courtesy of Layla Moran)
British enough. Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon Layla Moran. (Courtesy of Layla Moran)

LONDON - A report assessing how much research has been done on Arab communities in the United Kingdom said little data existed on the “largely invisible” group.

The report prepared by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) is to be published in October but main findings were released during a panel discussion in London.

CAABU Director Chris Doyle said that for six months researcher Kholood Mohammed collated research and assessed what is known and not known about British-Arab communities.

“[The project] is based on the sincere belief that vibrant, confident, participative British-Arab communities are a huge asset to Britain and that as it stands and the research bore out, we do not know or understand enough about their successes, achievements and challenges,” Doyle said.

“Over decades, I have spoken to members of these communities and the notable feature is that everything is anecdotal. People in community ‘x’ are worried about this; people are not joining political parties because of ‘y.’ On the issue of numbers, I have heard a whole range of figures ranging from 500,000 to as high as 3 million but with no data ever to substantiate this.”

The report said British-Arab communities are largely invisible, often ignored as a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) community or subsumed merely as British Muslims.

“While British Arabs remain largely invisible in British life, their concerns will not be listened to and so their representation will be less than their numbers,” Doyle said. “We know that because other communities have made great progress, including British Muslims of non-Arab descent.”

Doyle emphasised that CAABU’s vision is to accelerate increasing British-Arab participation in public life, not just in politics but in all fields, including business, media, culture and education.

“British Arabs can act as fantastic bridge builders, challenging many stereotypes and misunderstandings about their culture,” he said.

Mohammed said the British-Arab community was “severely under-researched.”

“There are some great examples of British-Arab community centres but many are underfunded and lack good online presence and resources, while British-Arab figures and young talents are difficult to trace,” she said.

The report recommended strengthening of those centres, encouraging British-Arab participation in politics, updating community reports and spreading awareness by encouraging people to tick the Arab box in the 2021 census.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and the party’s Shadow Cabinet member for Education and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, also took part on the panel. She is the first British-Palestinian member of Parliament.

“It was a bit of a crisis of confidence to stand for parliament because when I first got into politics I thought: ‘Am I British enough?’” Moran said.

“The combined heritage is who I am. One of my proudest moments as an MP was when I was questioning Boris Johnson on Palestinian issues. He made some ridiculous comments when he was foreign secretary and I found having that personal dimension from the region got him to say things and admit things that he would not ordinarily do,” Moran said.

Souad Talsi, founder of Al-Hasaniya, the only pan-Arab women centre in London and a UN Economic and Social Council accredited charity that supports Moroccans, gave a brief introduction to the United Kingdom’s 100,000-strong Moroccan community.

She said many of the first Moroccan immigrants who arrived in the United Kingdom in the 1960s were women who subsequently brought their husbands.

“What does it mean to be an Arab?” Talsi asked. “Is it the Arab who goes to Harrods and shops all day? Is it the Arab who works in a hotel as a waiter? Children should be encouraged to speak about their origin at school. The North African Arabs [Moroccans and Algerians] are engaging in countries where they live more than other Arabs.”

Talsi said her message to the Arab community was: “We are here [in Britain]. We have chosen to live here and therefore I am not saying assimilate but embrace this culture that we are part of.”

“Our children go to school with British children and children from different backgrounds but the common denominator is Britain and Britain has many cultures,” she said. “A Saudi woman is different from a Moroccan woman because we have a cultural heritage that makes us who we are but the common denominator is being British-Arabs.”

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