Middle class Muslims leaving UK for the Middle East

Many Muslims, fed up with what they see as Islamophobia, are upping sticks and heading for the Middle East.

At Nuzhat al-Sibassi’s family home in south London, the contents are being packed away in boxes, ready to be shipped to the United Arab Emirates.

Mrs al-Sibassi was born in Britain to Pakistani parents, raised and educated here. She’s worked as a senior hospital manager in the NHS, but is now moving with her family to the United Arab Emirates.

“Living here is not how it was. The politics and the environment has changed and people’s perception of Muslims has changed dramatically. A number of incidents in UK over past 3-4 years have marred life for decent Muslims living here.”

Mrs al-Sibassi is just one of a growing number of middle class Muslims who are leaving because they no longer feel comfortable living in the country of their birth.

Last year an ICM survey found that two-thirds of Muslims contemplated leaving Britain after the 7 July bombings in London. The regular flow of front-page headlines has placed Muslims under intense pressure to explain their faith and its place in British society.

Politicians’ assurances

“Bringing up children in an environment where the messages in the media are anti-Islamic, it just puts added pressure on them as they grow up,” Mrs al-Sibassi says.

It’s a pressure she feels herself too. “You feel you are having to constantly prove that you’re not what other people think you are. You always have to be on your guard.”

She believes that despite British politicians’ assurances to the contrary, there is a witch-hunt going on against Muslims at the moment.

“I know many Muslims who have been arrested and put in cells overnight without being charged. They’re not terrorists – they just happen to have a beard and visit the mosque on a Friday. It makes us all feel uneasy, and you want to be away from it, hence the move.”

Lord Ahmed, a Muslim peer in the House of Lords, says he has noticed this growing nervousness.

“The Archbishop of York has compared Britain with Uganda under Idi Amin and he said that the difficulties faced by the Asians at that time are very similar to the difficulties faces by the Muslim community today.

“Obviously people have already been feeling the intimidation, the provocation, and more importantly, the demonisation of their religion. These people who are born here, who’ve lived here all their life and they feel that they now don’t belong here – because they’re being made to feel like that.”

Dubai headhunters

Britain’s loss is the Gulf’s gain. It’s the booming economies in the region, particularly those of the United Arab Emirates, which are actively seeking these skilled British Muslim professionals.

Six months ago, Meiraj Hussein, from Lancashire, who works in corporate recruitment, was headhunted by a large multinational located in Dubai.

“Things are different in England since 9/11, it’s generally more difficult to get ahead in the corporate world. You reach a glass ceiling. Coming here, it’s a step up for me job-wise, and one of the reasons for moving,” he says.

Emerging companies in the Emirates see a Western education as a good thing. And being Muslim with an Asian background is seen as a good recipe for fitting in, Mr Hussein says.

His wife Shazia, who is a teacher, initially remained in the UK, but now is ready to join him.

“I feel very relaxed here. It’s not a question of fitting in, it’s more a question of not sticking out. Since the 7 July bombings in London if you wear hijab or have a beard then you’re treated as if you don’t believe in secular society.

“Here, I look more Arab so I am viewed in a positive way, the tables are turned if you like. And it does affect you psychologically. I feel more comfortable here, which is sad really because Britain is my home. I was born there, my family are there and part of me does feel sad to leave. It’s not an easy thing.”

But it’s couples like Meiraj and Shazia that are the role models for the younger generation of Muslims, looking to further integrate itself into British society.

The Muslim community in Britain has a very small middle class – only 16% are professionals. And they are the ones who are leaving. In some quarters, there are concerns about the impact of this creeping migration.

“There’s a potential problem there. If the very few of us who are making it to the higher positions in terms of education and labour market leave, what is left?” asks Dr Tahir Abbas, who is the Director of Birmingham University’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture.

“The fact that we’ve got three times as high unemployment in the inner city, we’ve got huge problems of health, housing, inequality, who’s going to lead on these fronts, not just as Muslims, but as citizens?’ It’s a tremendous brain drain.”

For Mrs al-Sibassi it’s a difficult choice.

“That has come to my mind – discussing with like-minded friends of mine who are female and wear the hijab. Again and again, the same issue comes up, that you need to stay and fight.”

But she knows her children must come first, and for her, that means a plane to the Emirates.

I’m A Muslim, Get Me Out Of Here! will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 BST on Tuesday 24 April 2007 and repeated at 1700 BST on Sunday 29 April.

• Original title: Flight of middle class Muslims

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday April 25, 2007.
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