(unpublished, October 2003)
YOUNG ARABS: A HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?
The recent Arab human development report, drawn up for the UN by a number of leading Egyptian experts, revealed a deplorable state of backwardness in the Arab world. This was a cause of dismay to many observers who had believed that the situation should not have been so bleak, given the wealth of the oil-producing Arab states, technology transfer and the westernisation of many Arab institutions. Some may have taken comfort in the thought that Arab communities living in the West have fared better under the improving influence of the advanced societies there, that the poor state of the Arab world is a reflection of geography and politics, rather than something innately Arab. However, those of us living amongst these communities in the West find little cause for comfort.
Britain contains one of the most important ex-patriate Arab communities of the Western world. They form the second largest English speaking group after the US and London, where more than half of Britain’s Arabs live, is a major Arabic cultural centre and the publishing home of two of the Arab world’s leading newspapers. The size of the community is not accurately known, for the 2001 national census results for Arabs has not yet been analysed. Informal estimates put the total number at about 400,000, which compares favourably with the number of Jews in Britain. And yet, unlike the Jews, Arabs are virtually invisible, nowhere to be seen in British public or cultural life. They form no pressure group able to influence events and participate hardly at all in the affairs of the country. This absence became especially noticeable since the start of the Palestinian intifada and the war on Iraq which demonstrated the need for an effective, organised Arab voice in Britain.
But the few Arab organisations that exist there – the Arab Club, the handful of Arab national associations and one or two small Palestinian groups – were unable to mount any kind of effort in this direction. Though many Arabs joined in activities organised by others, they themselves did not to initiate anything independently. There are many reasons for this failure: disorganisation, reluctance to participate in the public and political life of the country – less than a hundred Arabs have joined the British political parties - a greater attachment to the counties of origin than to Britain and fear of and unfamiliarity with British systems. These characteristics are by no means specific to the community in Britain. They have been noted in other Western Arab expatriate groups, perhaps to a lesser extent in the US, where the Arab presence has at last begun to make itself felt on the political stage.
Given the current crisis in the Middle East and the corresponding need for an effective response, the Arab community’s poor record has prompted a search for a remedy. And it seems that one may be at hand. For many years, the bulk of the Arabs abroad were first-generation immigrants who brought with them the attitudes (and failings) of the original society. It may have been unrealistic to expect from them the activism that only full integration with the host society brings. However, in the last decade, a young and interesting generation of Arabs has begun to emerge. Many of these people will either have been born in Britain or have received their major education in a Western country – a situation familiar to parents in Jordan, for example, who have sent their children for study abroad. Some of them will be half-Arab. But whatever the case, the result is that they will be fully acculturated in Western society but will retain close links to their cultures of origin. Some but not all will speak Arabic, but they will be familiar with Arab social and political issues. Most importantly, they will want to engage actively in the Arab cause in its widest meaning. And they are set to be much more effective than their parents, because they combine an understanding of the western system and its language with a commitment and loyalty to their own origins.
This generation forms a new and important group that could, if properly organised, become a force to be reckoned with. Numbers of such young Arabs are difficult to estimate, but there are certainly enough to constitute the beginnings of a specific organisation. There is currently no representation for this group. They have no separate voice and often no contact with each other. Many in Britain belong to non-Arab organisations of various kinds, but do not find common cause on all the issues that are specific to them in such groupings. This state of affairs represents a wasted opportunity of a remarkable Arab resource, by no means confined to the community in Britain. The same situation obtains in other places where Arabs have migrated, or even in the Arab world itself where Western-educated children have tried to re-settle and found themselves aliens.
Awareness of this phenomenon prompted the formation in Britain last April of a new organisation, called ‘Young Arabs for Peace and Justice’, to cater for the 20-35 age group. In convening it, I had in mind not only the need to exploit a rich resource that could articulate the Arab cause more effectively than my own generation had done, but also for personal reasons. I recalled the difficulties of growing up in England after 1948 with few Arab children to share my sense of split identity. I would have longed for such a network of like-minded young people, but none was available. When the group first convened, they said their major need was for mutual support and empathy and that has remained a powerful incentive. Since its inception, ‘Young Arabs’ has met approximately once a month and has a growing membership. From the first meeting, their instant identification with each other was striking. I was astonished at the range of skills these young people possessed and the potential for working together that that implied. The plan of action now is to form an ever larger network of like-minded young people, at first to meet socially and informally without a rigid framework of rules, and then later to let sub-groups working on different projects emerge out of members’ interests and experience. And so far, this is working well.
My own hope is that this organisation will form the model for others elsewhere where such young people live and find no separate voice. Before too long, ‘Young Arabs’ should become a strong political and cultural force to express and defend the Arab cause in a Western world where anti-Arab prejudice is only too real. Perhaps it is this new generation that will raise Arab fortunes from their low ebb and place the Arab world once more on the map of world affairs.
Ghada Karmi is Vice-Chair of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Young Arabs can be contacted on: youngArabs@yahoogroups.com.