By Nabila Ramdani
Ask a British person what an Arab looks like and descriptions are likely to fall somewhere between the enigmatic desert chieftain played by Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia” and the tawny, unshaven terrorist schemers in “Homeland.” Ignorance abounds and, at present, misimpressions tend to veer toward the crass fictional TV series end of the scale, rather than the slightly more sympathetic Hollywood movie one.
This is made abundantly clear by the new Arab News/YouGov survey on “UK attitudes toward the Arab world”. The extensive poll of 2,142 adults, conducted with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), revealed that an emphatic 81 percent admitted to “knowing little or nothing about the Arab world,” while 41 percent even said they would “never travel to the region.”
It is accordingly no surprise that widespread antipathy was detected for some 425 million people living in the 22 Arab-speaking countries of the Arab League. Disturbing views were certainly directed at the 370,000-plus members of the Arab diaspora currently residing in Britain, as well as those hoping to settle there.
The vast majority are, of course, Muslims and the overlap proved highly significant. Many of those questioned were convinced that the inhabitants of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, were Arabs, simply because of their religion.
This absence of basic education also clearly influenced judgments about those fleeing conflict. While more than 70 percent of respondents thought the anti-refugee ideas of xenophobic politicians and other influential opinion-formers increased the risk of Islamophobia and hate crimes, 55 percent approved of “racial profiling against Arabs and Muslims for security reasons” too.
As many as 41 percent considered that those coming from war-torn Arab countries such as Syria and Libya were of no benefit to society at all. Almost 70 percent reckoned that the UK should welcome fewer refugees from such places. This figure jumped to 91 percent among Brexit voters. Overall, more than 60 percent felt that new arrivals from the Arab world failed to “integrate” in Western societies.
In short, people are well aware that animosity toward newcomers is prevalent due to a rise in populist nationalism, but this won’t stop them expressing some horrific, lazy prejudices of their own. To many, the very term “Arab” is now a catch-all word for anybody who is there to be demonized, pilloried and shunned.
No matter that Arabs in fact range from Gulf multimillionaires, through highly educated and affluent middle classes, to those struggling to build a life for themselves at home or abroad, after escaping persecution.
A lot of them are white, and a huge number of male Arabs don’t actually wear beards, nor women head coverings. They have different political and religious inclinations, as well as varied hobbies and food. Some are angry about the way the world is organized, others less so.
The notion that they are all one and the same – a homogeneous “other” – is preposterous. Such thinking is the reason malevolent commentators are able to equate unspeakable outrages such as terrorism with entire communities. They refuse to distinguish between the often drugged-up and psychologically deranged fanatics who commit low-tech, vile atrocities in Britain, and millions of decent people.
So it is that a mainstream British columnist keeps her job after comparing Arab Muslim refugees to “cockroaches,” and then calling for a “Final Solution” for the ethnic and religious groups they originate from. A book by an equally bigoted and vicious media personality refers to the slow “death” of Europe at the hands of this alien swarm.
Genocidal sentiments aimed at these mythical savages are then echoed across unmoderated comment sections and social media platforms in a manner which would have been considered beyond the pale a few years ago.
In this climate of unadulterated hatred, there are very few references to far-right terrorism, least of all the murderous variety. Other violent crimes in Western societies, most of them committed by indigenous populations, are similarly ignored. Colonialism and the ongoing industrial killing carried out by the West with technologically advanced military machines on Arab and Muslim countries around the world are underplayed too.
One of the highest figures in the survey was the 83 percent of people who believe that Britain was wrong to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Fifty-seven percent said UK foreign policy is largely “ineffective” in upholding human rights in the Middle East and promoting global security.
The fact that the illegal invasion and occupation of Arab lands, and the associated oppression of Palestinians by Israel, are backed up by billions of dollars’ worth of arms export licenses and direct aid from the US and its allies – including Britain – is routinely bypassed. Tellingly, the poll found that 55 percent of people do not want the UK to even help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite Britain’s key historical role in creating it in the first place.
This year marks a century since British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared support for the creation of Israel in Palestine, so unleashing decades of war. Yet many British appear indifferent to halting the bloodshed.
Instead, it is only Arabs and those mistaken for Arabs who are portrayed as the perpetrators of the worst offenses. Those who buy into this crude stereotype call for their internment and deportation, as they rehearse the kind of Islamophobic and racist tropes propagated by the more high-profile rabble-rousers.
There is no place for common humanity in their woefully simplistic approach – no concession that people come in all shapes and sizes, and choose all types of lives for themselves, no matter what their ethnic, cultural or religious background.
(The Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist, columnist and broadcaster who specialises in French politics, Islamic affairs and the Arab world.
Twitter: @NabilaRamdani. Article with courtesy of Arab News)