Race, Social Justice

I was told I wasn’t a “real Arab” by my friends, so my community abandoned me

We are an incredibly proud people to a fault.

I’m just going to go all out and say this:

Arabs have the ability to be racist.

And I say this as an out and proud Arab Australian, that just like any other ethnicity or race, deep rooted prejudices run deep within our veins. It’s our flawed humanity to make assumptions based on appearance and feeling.

And unless you were an outsider to the machinations of the Arab Diaspora, you were practically indoctrinated with them in mind.

This is a particularly important conversation to have in all Muslim communities abroad, mainly because Islam was founded on the basis of racial and ethnic equality.

From the get go, the first generations dismantled preconceived notions of basing one’s pride on their nobility and enshrining status by keeping family bloodlines pure. It’s no shocker that Islam’s message of humility and utter expulsion of arrogance and prejudice was mainly directed at the Arabs of the time.

We are an incredibly proud people to a fault.

Sydney’s Muslim community was mainly founded by the waves of Lebanese migration in the late 1970s to 1980s in response to the Lebanese Civil War. Today, that same community has flourished and has steadily diversified, but the Arab demographic is mostly concentrated in the Middle East, from countries such as Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt.

Australia’s Muslim population in general is some of the most diverse I have ever come across. There are backgrounds from South East Asia, the Sub Indian Continent, Africa, and a burgeoning Indigenous community as well.

We really have a snapshot of the world living on the end of the Earth.

But there is a strange and bittersweet irony that comes with being a minority amongst a minority. Allow me to explain.

My parents are both from Algeria, and this may not be news to anyone from Europe or the UK, but in Australia, with a Muslim population of around five hundred thousand, Algerians barely make the ten thousand mark. I should know, because anytime we’ve needed paperwork or visas to Algeria finalized, the Consulate practically jumps for joy at the chance for human contact at the Embassy in Canberra (the real capital, obvi).

I knew my ethnicity was different, but it wasn’t until Islamic private school did I realize how different.  And I should have known the minute I was asked by classmates: ‘Where are you from?’

If I didn’t know it then, I knew now: I was not a legitimate Arab.

The smokescreen blew away to reveal the social hierarchy that was in place. It is incredibly isolating as it is being from a background that no one has heard of, with all the redundant questions that come with it, but growing up in an school with a majority demographic of Lebanese students opened my eyes to prejudiced behaviour that is taught at such a young age.

It was easier to bully me for years, because I was ‘alone’ and was not a ‘real Arab’. Ethnicity became such a distinguishing factor and determines how you are treated as a person in a Muslim community.

Being pushed to the outside made me desensitized to my roots. I mostly forgot what Algeria looked and sounded like as I was drowning in the drums of the dabkeh, and all I could smell was kefta and tabbouleh. The worst thing was that amongst friend groups, I was told for years that I was making a big deal out of this, and that no one sees each other by ethnicity as we’re all human anyway. Sound familiar?

If these micro-aggressions exist between Arabs, then it’s incredibly telling how racism runs rampant in communities that are being represented by them. These prejudices manifest themselves in ways that are not anticipated that we are just beginning to realise and dismantle.

In having our first mosques established by the Arab community with sermons and lectures conducted in Arabic, you end up excluding non-Arabic speakers. Fast forward to now where there is a mosque for almost every single language and culture further fragmenting the community, when it could be spent on much more needed services such as women’s homes for protection against domestic violence, youth programs and legal centres.

There are also racial and ethnic expectations when discussing problems that affect the Ummah, and this becomes most apparent when discussing donating to charitable causes. There is unanimous support for the Palestinian and Syrian cause and rightly so, but when it comes at a cost to what is happening in other parts of the world, like persecution of Muslims in the Central African Republic, Kashmir and Uyghurs in China is when we have a problem.

Arab causes have privileged importance and the rest of the world already donates to Africa, so why should we? When racism dictates what you do with charity, you know you’ve gone too far.

Advocating for solidarity, support and dialogue with Indigenous communities is asking for all undercover keyboard bigots to rear their ugly heads and almost make you wish you didn’t bring it up. And when discussing these issues with the community, along with diversifying religious leaders, scholars and media representatives, race and ethnicity totally underpin the discussion. We can’t pick and choose which cause hurts the most, all pain is valid.

This is why Muslim youth in Sydney are paving the way for change, and are starting grassroots with local initiatives aimed at educating our communities, exposing the ignorance and slowly but surely change. This generation has a collective Australian identity that grounds us in ways that our parents didn’t have, and this is our clear advantage, but boy, do we have a lot of work to do.