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British people’s frustrations lie with their government

Britain may have lost its way when it gave up its empire 60-70 years ago, but it seemed to have found a role in Europe in the 1970s. Now Britain is very unsure of itself once again, with the government struggling to define what leaving the EU — Brexit — will mean. 
This week, Arab News published a survey, in conjunction with YouGov, on British attitudes toward Arabs. The poll found that the majority of Britons agree with racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims, and 69 percent think the UK should take in fewer refugees from Syria and Iraq. 
Arab News commentators who discussed this survey said there is a broad correlation between those who voted to leave the EU in June last year, and those who claim to dislike migrants and immigration. If we take a closer look at this, it might help to see the survey results in their proper context.
Some may be surprised to hear that the British are generally ignorant of Middle Eastern issues and are influenced by the uninformed and bigoted UK press. Yet we have to admit that the Internet and the free availability of information on every topic has not made the British more knowledgeable or intelligent. It is as if the way all knowledge is readily available to everyone all the time means that no one needs to go to the trouble of learning anything. 
Nor have the British become more adept at foreign languages. Others learn English, so why should they bother? Travel is very easy and cheap, but tourism is almost totally a superficial experience. The many generations who went abroad to serve the British Empire, study foreign cultures, learn languages and trade with distant countries, have almost all died out. Few of today’s British politicians know much about or are interested in foreign affairs.
While I do not think that we should take too seriously the results of the survey, the results did not make for cheerful reading. However the sample was small and the survey failed to take account of the strange unease which is sweeping the UK at the moment. 
There are deeper currents running in modern Britain, which Brexit has to some extent exposed. Poor prospects, high unemployment, low educational standards and the effects of globalization have hit many communities hard. Governments in London, an international city which exhibits very different characteristics — prosperity, high levels of employment, a huge foreign immigrant workforce and ease with globalization — have either failed to notice, or been unable to do anything about the growing gaps in society in other parts of the country. 
People in the poorer regions blame immigration for their unfavorable situation, though these areas are often the ones least directly affected by inward migration. The region which has had the greatest level of immigration, London and the South East, has little difficulty with it.

The UK public’s frustrations with their relative poverty, and with the effects of globalization, are not intrinsically anti-Arab or anti-Islamic.

Anthony Harris

It is important to realize that the British people’s frustrations with the government, with their relative poverty, and with the effects of globalization, are not intrinsically anti-Arab or anti-Islamic. The survey, which asked about Arabs and the Arab world, produced results that indicate a high level of Islamophobia, but a survey about East Europeans in Britain might have produced similar anti-Polish or anti-Romanian results, for example. 
Poorer people who are concerned for their future tend to blame external factors like immigrants for the loss of their jobs, even if that is not true. They tend to look back to times when life was supposedly better: Brexit was in part a nostalgic movement. This survey gave those polled a chance to highlight a factor which was not there 50 years ago. The Brexit campaign shamefully used images of Syrian refugees pouring ashore in Greece, alleging that this was what was in store for Britain if it stayed in Europe. 
This was a terrible distortion, but it was extremely effective, and was better propaganda than arguments about trade agreements or rebates from the EU budget. It succeeded in getting British people to vote to throw away present advantages in the EU, which had greatly increased their prosperity, and vote for a future which is highly likely to make them poorer and more isolated.
This is not of course a one-sided argument: People in the West are not inventing the threat from Daesh and other extremist groups. Islam risks getting a bad name in countries targeted by extremists; governments of Muslim countries should not hide behind the claim that terrorism carried out in the name of Islam is self-evidently non-Islamic. All governments and leaders in Europe and the Arab world must do more to educate their people about what is really going on in their countries. All governments should work to improve the image of Islam. 
Britain is not alone in having problems with integrating immigrants into society: The German election this week threw up another example of this issue. The success of London, led by Mayor Sadiq Khan, in being a tolerant multicultural society shows the positive side of what can be achieved. I note that London is regularly included in the list of Muslim-friendly tourist destinations. In short, I believe that London is a much better example of what is happening in Britain than the results of an unhelpful survey might indicate.
• Anthony Harris is a former British ambassador to the UAE and a career diplomat in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected]