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Ramy Aly, author of the new anthropolocial work Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity discusses what it means to be a British Arab.


‘Young people are acutely aware of the meanings that inform belonging in their society as well as those that convey symbolic violence. The everyday interactions that take place at Britain’s school are instances where young people draw upon the discursive economy within their culture and map a system of meaning upon those around them. In Hugh Muir’s recent article ‘Is your five-year-old a bigot and a racist?’ he asks, ‘these things they say, where do they come from?’[1] While I Being Arab In Londonunderstand the sentiment, it also baffles me to think that the answers to that question seem so ostensibly elusive. As if we were somehow unaware of the divisive structural and cultural values and discourses on difference in contemporary Britain. When schoolchildren utter racist, sexist, classist or homophobic taunts (to name but a few) and act upon them, they are reiterating and reciting through the parlance of their time, the system of values and meanings that are to be found in the local and global culture in which they live. Discourses are pervasive, once the meanings have been made and circulated it is difficult to control or erase them. No one should any longer doubt that that those utterances made by school children are an uncensored version of the discourses and cultural values that surround them at a time in their lives when they are yet to develop the aptitudes of subtle prejudice, concealment and carefully timed delivery practiced so masterfully by adult culture. Looking in horrified incredulity at the cruelty that some of our children exact upon one another should quickly give way to the realisation that we are all to blame.

While discrimination works on levels too numerous to comprehensively list or prioritise, ethno-racial discrimination remains the forte of debates about national identity in Britain and elsewhere. The postcolonial melancholia that Paul Gilroy so lucidly described over a decade ago seems to still define the enduring sense of a nation diluted and deformed by the arrival of those with different shades of melanin, tongues and beliefs.[2] Britain has only ever really half-heartedly tried to accept that mass migration has been caused by the country’s thirst for cheap labour and its colonial and neo-colonial exploits.

I say ‘neo-colonial’ because ‘postcolonial’ may be a slightly premature designation. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Arabs and Kurds who make-up the largest group of migrants from Arab states to Britain have arrived in unprecedented numbers since the 1991 Gulf War, the subsequent sanctions regime and more consequentially as a direct result of the 2003 American and British invasion and destruction of the Iraqi state. Britain was a principle protagonist in those conflicts, and on the whole it is safe to say that other societies and countries less implicated in those episodes have had to bear the brunt of forced mass migration from Iraq.

Although as a society we are certainly trying to deal with the changing nature of Britain, there is a sense in which those attempts have been accompanied by a culture of denial. Every now and then the debate is taken out of the rhetorical sophism of ‘tolerance’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘communities’, ‘Britishness’ and the like and is distilled into forms of expression that are more sincere and reflective of the cultural status quo. Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s recent sports microplay ‘Death of England’ captures the reality of England’s cultural condition incisively. During an emotionally charged and impromptu eulogy to his father, the main character Paul tells his best friend Delroy that at football matches his father, who now lay behind him in a coffin draped in the St George’s cross, would cover Paul’s ears as racist abuse was being hurled at black players on the field. But he couldn’t stop him seeing the bananas being thrown on the field. ‘There’s no sense in it’ his father would say, but Paul retorts ‘well if you hated it so much why didn’t you tell your mates to stop, why didn’t you do something let alone cover my bleedin’ ears’. It’s a simple analogy, although many people, institutions and governments have taken a stand against racism and discrimination officially and rhetorically, we have been less adept at tackling the culture of racism and the ideas and values that fuel discrimination and constitute it as a lived reality. Is Britain, like Paul’s father trying to cover its children’s ears to protect them against the culture of racism, while allowing it to thrive and structure their sense of self and other in a myriad other ways?

Paul confronts Delroy with the reality that most of us know but prefer to ignore, you may sound like us, you may act like us, but you will never be one of us.’ While I was researching my book Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity, I was often struck by the way in which many young people I interviewed narrated growing up in London as a process of gradual estrangement from Englishness, a process that they felt was someone else’s doing. Take Suad for examples, born in London in the late 1970s to Jordanian parents, Suad tried to embody the white, leafy middle-class suburb in which she lived, and mimicked what she considered to be a loyal ‘Englishness’. She was quite clear that she thought of herself not as British but as English, quite enthusiastically adopting what she thought were the necessary tastes, discriminations and cultural mores that might make her a ‘local’ as it were. Suad had internalised the notion that she was English and that her behaviour and presentation meant that she could convincingly pass for and even be accepted as English.

‘Until one day a group of girls in my class, I’ll never forget this, they said to me ‘You are not English, you are not Anglo-Saxon, you are British’, that really was like, it made me feel like nothing ’cause whatever I did wasn’t good enough.’

This passing incident, which contains no direct slander or abusive language was enough to fundamentally alter Suad’s relationship to the country and culture in which she lived, at least for as long as she remembered the incident which in this case took place over twenty years ago. Suad’s attempt to be English, her performative rendition, was as Homi Bhabha suggests the effect of a ‘flawed colonial mimesis in which to be Anglicised is emphatically not to be English’[3]

In spite of the family disciplining that more often than not emphasises the idea that ‘we are not English’, or the school system that unfailing makes sense of young people as ‘ethnic minority schoolchildren;’ many young people I interviewed saw themselves as English until the message, that is out there in society but suppressed so often and yet clear in so many roundabout ways, was delivered in all its unadulterated clarity by peers at school: Englishness is still about biology and race.

Even though the debate on Britishness roars on unabated, many people are tiring of the toing and froing about what it means and how migrants and their children might share in it. We all know that ‘Britishness’ is a metaphor for acceptance and inclusion, the debate is actually about inclusion and exclusion from ‘Englishness’ and not whether people identify with being British. Britishness articulated in this way confirms the boundedness of the categories it has come to relieve, in this case ‘Englishness’ and becomes a secondary category that stands for partial acceptance and curtailed inclusion. Englishness seems to be the last barricade between the nations perceived pre-immigration monoculture and sense of self, and its ‘multicultural’ present, lamented and celebrated in equal measure.

Ahmed, who was raised in Britain while his Iraqi parents were studying for their doctorates also ‘felt quite English’ until the 1991 Gulf War when some of his peers at school decided that it would be fun to walk past him simulating the sound of a falling bomb and call him ‘Saddam’. Those experiences and ‘slurs live and thrive in and as the flesh of the addressee’ and over time harden, taking on profound meaning as ordering principles that ‘count as ‘reality’’[4]. The physical and verbal abuse was so consistent and persuasive that he eventually started putting pictures of Saddam Hussein on his folders and schoolbooks. How ironic that it was at school in Britain, a country that he readily identified with, that he was obliged to appropriate the image of the despot who had caused so much suffering and dislocation for him and his family.

Again we are confronted with the fact that these experiences take place at schools and are recalled and continue to have meaning for people decades later. The things that were said and done to both Ahmed and Suad were created and sanctioned outside schools but reflected forcefully in the interactions within them.

Niether Ahmed nor Suad were born Arabs, they were made into ‘Arabs in Britain’ by their parents, peers, war, the media and the pervasive ethnic cultural politics of the United Kingdom which remains so uncomfortable in its own skin. In other words they have been forced to recite a particular kind of gendered, raced and classed subjectivity. Their subjectivity was forged in the process of interpolating the injunctions that they were confronted with among them the clear message that regardless of how they sounded, behaved or felt, they would never be English and the ‘identities’ that they subsequently appropriated are about a project of survival and intelligibility within the culture that they live.

However careful we think we might have become at avoiding certain words and however adept politicians and institutions are at crafting messages and policies about diversity and tolerance we must recognise that people, particularly children are far more sensitive to meaning than we think. Meanings are not just about enunciations; absences and silences – what is not said, meanings that are suppressed, histories that are denied – are just as important and consequential.

This is not just about a straightforward White/ Black or ‘indigenous’/ immigrant animosity, racial thinking is far more tenacious than that. In early 2014 Lola Okolosie reported on the scale of ‘intra-racism’ at schools arguing that we rarely consider the diverse modalities in which racism can thrive within a ‘multicultural’ setting.[5] There is something about the way we have experienced multiculturalism that has fortified and valorised the idea of ethnic distinctiveness and hierarchy, Afro-Caribbean is pitted against African, Pakistani against Indian and Bangladeshi to name but a few.

My experience with young British-born or raised Arabs very much speaks to the kind of dynamic that Okolosie reports. Some young British-Arabs seemed reluctant to share social space and locales with people they had been socialised into seeing as somehow different or inferior in culture, race, class, taste and so on. This meant that for many the Edgware Road a place long stereotyped as being the heart of Arab London was actively avoided by some because it was ‘full of Pakis,’ ‘Chavistanis’ and ‘P-Diddy clones (aka Somalis)’. The censure here is not just racial but intimately related to class.

One young man I interviewed outside a mosque in west London responded to questions about how he felt about being British and Arab by saying ‘Look if there’s one thing I could say to them it’s that we are not all Pakis.’ I took ‘them’ to refer to the British media or public and the ‘we’ to refer to not just ‘Muslims’ but implicitly to ‘real Muslims’. The South Asian face of Islamic ‘revivalism’ in Britain is used as part of a discourse that some Arabs in Britain subscribe to that ‘it is the Asians’ or ‘Pakis’, who do not really understand Islam and who are responsible for the current negativity with which Muslims are seen in Britain. This narrative not only excludes the role of 9/11, where it is claimed that all the bombers were Arab, but is also a case of a flagrantly selective repertoire which borrows a British racist trope ‘Paki’ to frame British South Asian Muslims as the cause of a deep-seated and complex fear of Islam and Muslims in Britain.

Like Hugh Muir, perhaps there are some British-Arabs and or British-Muslims reading this saying to themselves ‘How did this happen?’ ‘Where do they get these ideas from?’ ‘The majority of young Arabs and Muslims don’t have such views’. Again, I understand the sentiment, but denying the deep-seated fractures and bigoted discriminations among what people like to see as ‘British-Muslim’ is a similar act of denial or naivety.

The penchant for difference that we live with has institutional and cultural roots. In my work I became convinced of the arguments that suggest that our thinking in Britain remains captivate to the logic of race, a condition I describe as ‘ethnonormativity’. Ethnonormativity is a deeply embedded set of beliefs about essential sameness and difference that naturalise the notion of ‘ethnicity’ and provide it with the status of a proper (ontological) object with which the expansive potential of self and human relationships are predicated. Ethnonormativity is relentlessly enduring; in its history it has manifested itself as that which is incommensurable about ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘religion’, ‘nation’ and ‘culture’. Today ‘identity’ has become both a synonym and suffix of these forms of incommensurability. The idea of having or possessing an ethnicity, of being part of an ethnic group has become so embedded in the way that we see people in Britain that we see ethnicity and ethnic groups everywhere instead of seeing people.

There is a clear genealogical line from the purported displacement of biological racism to the notion of cultural incommensurability and finally ‘identity’. ‘Ethnicity,’ ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ are the successors of ‘race’ within the context of British ethnic governmentality. Before we comfort ourselves with the thought that we have come so far on the back of multiculturalism we should remember that in Britain ethnonormative thinking still structures people’s sense of self and socio-political praxis. The solidarity that migrants had with each other was shattered by corporatist multicultural policies which made black politics into a spectrum of national and ethnic groups all in competition with each other over their distinctiveness, recognition by the state and acceptability vis a vis the majority.

In my research on Arabness in Britain I felt that often being ‘Arab’ was simply about not being ‘White’, ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’. Checkbox or corporatist multiculturalism has a performative effect in the Butlerian sense.[6] It brings into being that which it names – a society perceived through the notion of essential difference that needs to be managed and tolerated. Difference and distinctiveness have become primary source of subjectivity. The set of evolving policies that began as race-relations and have come to be known as ‘multiculturalism’ are not as some like to think, part of a benign anti-racist project. They have bought about a divisive identity politics in the way we see each other. As Malek Alloula would have it, within this cultural condition we produce stereotypes ‘in the manner of great seabirds producing guano’.[7] The rampant prejudice that echo in school playgrounds and classrooms all over the country is the clearest indication that large parts of mainstream British culture remain fertile breeding ground for bigotry.

I fear that some will take this to be ammunition for ‘multiculturalism’ bashing conservatism. Far from it, multiculturalism is another byword that we have coined to stand for the way in which Britain has tried to culturally cope with difference, a begrudging set of policies that were adopted to manage the ‘colonial boomerang’ and one that has fragmented and depoliticised Black politics and the struggle for equality, commodified the smells, sounds, colours and fashions of its ‘ethnic subjects’ and created a hierarchical system of signification that skirts around the most deeply embedded and complex aspect of subaltern belonging in Britain. It is a national state of mind, the coming and going of the term multiculturalism seems inconsequential because another set of policy terms will emerge to repackage and obscure Britain’s unresolved postcolonial condition. The culture of caustic disdain and resentment which so many people harbor has been normalised but in a very British way repressed. It only takes a brief look at the popularity of the language and sentiment of the far right to recognise the thirst that so many have for expressing this cultural malaise publicly and proudly. But it was there before UKIP and it will continue to be there until we engage in a sincere cultural process that can help Britain emerge from its denial about what it was, what it is and where it is going.


Ramy M. K. Aly is Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo.


Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity is available to buy from Pluto Press here.


[1] Muir, Hugh (2015) Is Your Five-Year-Old a Bigot and a Racist? The Guardian, January 4., accessed January 6, 2015.

[2] Gilroy, Paul 2004 After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?: Multiculture or Postcolonial Melancholia. 1 edition. London: Routledge.

[3] Bhabha, H. (1989) Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse, in P. Michelson (ed.) October: The First Decade (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) p.320

[4] Butler, J (1997) Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (London: Routledge) p.125

[5] Okolosie, Lola (2014) How White, Black and Brown Students Learn the Language of Racist Bullying. The Guardian, January 10., accessed January 6, 2015.

[6] Butler, J (1994) Against Proper Objects, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 6 Nos 2–3, pp. 1–25.

[7] Alloula, M. (1986) The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) p.4