Unheard and unseen? How Arabs in the UK participate in political life

Arabs in the UK: Political activism
8 min read
28 January, 2022
Arabs in the UK series: Despite being largely neglected by mainstream political consciousness, Arabs in the UK contribute to political life in a variety of ways. The New Arab speaks with six politically active citizens about their experiences.

British Arabs or Arabs in the UK are rarely acknowledged as their own identity, often subsumed under the wider umbrella of British Muslims. The 2021 UK census was, in fact, the first time the nationwide survey provided a tickbox for "Arab" under its ethnicity question, a hugely important data-gathering exercise for decision-making around service delivery. 

Generally, there's little research on UK Arabs and not much to discern their involvement in political life or political representation. Aside from ethnic representation, whether the community's needs are reflected in policy or their main concerns have barely been subject to inquiry. There are two reasonably well-known MPs in Westminster, but are their platforms well-received among the Arab community in the UK?

"The political representation of British Arab communities has evolved... there has been an increase in their number, but the longer that they have been here, the subsequent generations, means that there is a whole raft of young, talented British Arabs who now have grown up in another British education system and life"

"The political representation of British Arab communities has evolved," says Chris Doyle, Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).

"There has been an increase in their number, but the longer that they have been here, the subsequent generations, means that there is a whole raft of young, talented British Arabs who now have grown up in another British education system and life. Therefore, you [see] more participation," he adds. "The more that that happens, the more of a voice that there will be, which I think can be a counter to marginalisation."

Arab and Census 2021

The New Arab spoke to four Arabs from the UK who have participated in political life beyond voting, about how they engage, what motivates them or those around them and whether they feel represented by MPs. 

Sameh Habeeb, 36, is a British-Palestinian journalist and political activist living in Boris Johnson's constituency. He spoke to The New Arab, having submitted a petition recently to remove clause nine of the Nationalities and Borders Bill, the controversial provision that would excuse the Home Office from notifying an individual that they had been stripped of their citizenship. 

Habeeb also stood as a Labour councillor. Despite being suspended several years ago (unjustly, he argues) when a purge of the membership took place, he continues to campaign for the party. 

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"I always kind of go out and talk to people, particularly with Labour," he said, "I still believe that Labour is the best choice for us," adding that he recognises that not all of the Arabs in the UK he knows vote. 

Tamim Mobayed, 33, is from Northern Ireland and has a Syrian background. He works as a researcher for a sports media company, living between Belfast and Doha. Mobayed had hoped to become more involved in politics and came close to joining a political party when he was 18 but was talked out of doing so by family.

Mobayed said there were sectarian fears: "There's a lot of weight joining either side – green versus orange. The idea has also been pushed on me that it's better to work from outside the system."

Growing up in Belfast, where there is a history of conflict, he always had an interest in politics but said others around him in Muslim and Arab circles and family members didn't feel the same way; there was apathy that voting never achieved anything.

"Because of the countries that we come from, voting isn't usually something that's done. Specifically, with Syria, it's like a charade," he reflected.

How do Arabs in the UK participate in political life?

Samia Badani, a 47-year-old public policy consultant from London, however, says that Arabs in the UK are politically involved but they engage locally rather than at the national level because she doesn't believe they feel represented. 

"What we do here on the ground, we've got a lot of support from the Arab community because I think at that level they really identify with common values."

After the Grenfell Tower fire, Badani, for instance, worked with her local community in Kensington and Chelsea to support people's well-being and tried to engage the local council to strengthen that support. She has also worked with European NGOs, leading campaigns to influence policy. 

"So for me, the best way for me to be involved politically is working [with civil society] rather than to be an elected representative, where you have to mostly follow a party line rather than being responsive and having your own opinion," she said.

Badani credits her Tunisian background as her motivation, commenting that the culture promotes supporting other people, being loyal and truthful and giving back to people. 

Another interviewee, a 33-year-old from Leicestershire who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of her vocation, described to The New Arab how she regularly engages with her MP and signs petitions. However, she also went above and beyond with her contribution to local politics and development by sending in alternative plans for road infrastructure to positively impact the community and environment.

The fact that they didn't respond after their initial "'thanks, that's great' email," she said makes her feel unheard.

While climate change is one of her main concerns, she says she hasn't witnessed it have the same priority for the Arab or Muslim community in the UK but she also believes the idea of trying to nail down their concerns is fraught with challenges.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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"It's such a complicated term being Arab," she said, referring to the fact some people are North African and don't call themselves Arab. However, she acknowledged that she speaks Arabic and sees herself as Arab, even though she is Tunisian. Although, she admitted that being distinguished as British Arabs is preferable to being subsumed under the umbrella of British Muslims with the negative stereotypes of the post-9/11 world projected on them

"If you recognise [British Arabs] to help in a positive way, then that's fine. But if you recognise them to bring them down, then no," she said on the usefulness of acknowledging different Arab communities as a collective British Arab block.

Mobayed also believed an Arab block or lobby group could have some utility. 

"I think that other communities that have done that have benefited from it," he said.

"I wonder then if there was more effective organisation among British Arabs or British Muslims if they could have done more, for example, to protest the Iraq War? Or to shift British foreign policy?"

"I think for those who want to see greater participation of British Arabs, whether they like Nadhim, Labour's politics, [someone's] style or them as personalities are not so important so long as they realise that they break through a glass ceiling"

Most interviewees did see foreign policy as important to them but domestic issues were also significant: energy bills, education, infrastructure and local issues factored among their concerns.

Some noted that among those less politically active, where some do get involved, particularly young people, is on foreign policy, with Palestine being of special concern

Mobayed noted that he connects with views from within Stormont, although there is no representation ethnically. The feeling among the interviewees in England, however, was no one represented them in parliament even though there are two fairly prominent Arab MPs: Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, and Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon who previously contended for the party leadership.

Moran's election, in particular, was noteworthy for her being the first British-Palestinian and first female British Arab in parliament, and she advocated for recognition of a Palestinian state. On other issues, according to the website They Work For You, Moran's voting record reads similar to any other Liberal Democrat, including being anti-Brexit. Her leadership campaign was also partly built on a platform calling to improve education, including early years investment.

Zahawi has also been vocal on education issues, as education minister, including combating online harm against students and teachers but has also supported traditional conservative policies such as the “bedroom tax,” increasing VAT and he has voted against further EU integration. Unlike Moran, however, he has not been seen as doing enough to support Palestinian causes and voiced support for the extreme right-wing Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely when she faced protests in London.

The least he could do is be neutral on Israel and Palestine, says Habeeb.

"I'm yet to see any positive steps from either of them to put the needs of our communities before Parliament," says Badani.

The platform Moran or Zahawi run on, however, may not be as important as the fact that they are there, says Doyle, and to take heed of other community experiences where there is now a Muslim London mayor and cabinet ministers: "I think for those who want to see greater participation of British Arabs, whether they like Nadhim, Labour's politics, [someone's] style or them as personalities are not so important so long as they realise that they break through a glass ceiling."

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram