‘Yalla Corbyn’: Why some British Arabs support Labour

Anti-war Labour leader attracts some voters with Middle East heritage as Conservatives seen maintaining status quo.

A Syrian refugee woman offers sweets to Britain''s opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn during his visit to Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq
A Syrian refugee offers sweets to Jeremy Corbyn during his visit to Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, June 22, 2018 [Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – On a late November evening, members of the British Arab community braved the cold to rally support for Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the main opposition Labour Party battling to become prime minister.

Academics, activists, artists, civil servants, charity workers, journalists, filmmakers and politicians belonging to the Arab Labour Group, which launched 20 years ago, enjoyed Arabic coffee on tap, makloubeh and baklava in a west London meeting hall, as they cheered on the host’s chants of “yalla Corbyn, yalla Labour.”

The December 12 general election “is the fight of our lives”, politician Rupa Huq said at the event.

Rapper Lowkey said it was “a matter of life and death”, referring to Corbyn’s promise to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen, where an ongoing bloody war has killed tens of thousands of people.

Akram Salhab, the group’s 31-year-old co-chair, said: “We’ve always had a complicated relationship with the Labour Party. The Blair government’s Iraq War and counter-terror legislation oppressed a lot of our people.”

But with Corbyn at the helm “giving a fresh voice to UK foreign policy in the Middle East”, he said, Arab communities should lend their “unconditional support” to Labour.

The event illustrated a resurgence of British Arab engagement in the UK’s politics.

Attendees spoke of Corbyn’s support for Palestinian rights, his pledge to stop selling weapons to Israel, his backing of a trade boycott with illegal Israeli settlements and opposition to wars intended to remove foreign governments.

There is an “inextricable connection” between the impact of the so-called “war on terror“, foreign policy and rising Islamophobia in the UK, one member told Al Jazeera. 

Some Arabs planned to vote for Labour to solve rocketing hate crime, said Ahmed Ziat.

The Palestinian charity worker, who has lived in the UK since arriving to study International Politics at City University 11 years ago, said: “Corbyn’s stance in the Middle East has always supported justice, his policies don’t demonise people of colour for political gain.”

We've never had the chance to vote against the interests of the arms companies, the banking system and the fossil fuel companies that are subsidised by governments like ours.

by Lowkey, British Arab rapper

But is it the party itself or Corbyn that draws British Arabs to Labour?

“It’s not just about Labour, it’s about Corbyn as a leader,” said a British Lebanese artist. “There’s a stark difference between Labour under Blair and other previous Labour governments, and Labour under Corbyn.

“The consequences of UK foreign policy have led to air strikes in Syria, to arming of oppressor states, to the Iraq War, to 9/11 and to Afghanistan. Corbyn can see this is not the way forward.”

Rapper Lowkey, real name Kareem Dennis, said Corbyn would “make a direct and positive” affect both on people in the UK and those in the Middle East.

“We’ve never had the chance to vote against the interests of the arms companies, the banking system and the fossil fuel companies that are subsidised by governments like ours,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But now we have the opportunity to vote in the interests of the people. So, this election is an uprising and Jeremy Corbyn is our instrument of that uprising.”

There are about 367,000 first and second generation Arabs in the UK, according to the 2011 Office for National Statistics census.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor at SOAS university’s department of politics and international studies, said a Corbyn victory would likely mean a “more nuanced approach to the issues of Palestine and Syria and an overall less militaristic footprint in the Middle East”.

The Labour leader as prime minister would bring a “decisive shift away from previous British foreign policies…[and] US demands for UK collusion in the region.”

He added while it would be inevitable that Corbyn’s personal anti-war preferences would be tempered and compromised, they would not be “entirely discarded”.

Boris - reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement to announce the general election at Downing Street in London, Britain, November 6, 2019 [Toby Melville/Reuters]

The ruling Conservatives, meanwhile, “have an institutionalised proclivity towards the US”.

If they hold onto power, the UK would continue its opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and keep exporting arms to Saudi Arabia.

Weapons would be sold even more freely after Brexit, he said.

But a hung parliament, combined with the possibility of a Brexit stalemate, “would hamper the ability of any party to decisively shift UK foreign policy, Moghaddam said.

By the time of publishing, the Conservative Party had not responded to several requests by Al Jazeera for comment.

In previous comments and action regarding the Middle East, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will try and cling to his position next Thursday, has shown support for Israel, calling himself a “passionate Zionist”.

On Iran, he said he is prepared to restart sanctions to “cease this madness” over Tehran breaching the nuclear deal.

And when he held the role of foreign secretary, he recommended that the UK allow Saudi Arabia to buy British bomb parts expected to be deployed in Yemen, according to The Guardian.

A spokesperson from the Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing British foreign policy think-tank, told Al Jazeera the current government’s approach to foreign policy in the Middle East has been “steadily evolving” over the past decade.

“Britain has aimed to stabilise the Middle East, enhance regional prosperity and promote human rights,” the spokesperson said. 

Source: Al Jazeera