As a teenager, I fought hard to feel like I belonged. Now, that right is being undermined – for me and millions of others.
This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
I used my British passport for the first time on a January morning in 2002, to board a Eurostar train to Paris. I was taking a paper on the French Revolution for my History A-level and was on a trip to explore the key sites of the revolution, including a visit to Louis XIV’s chateau at Versailles. When I arrived at Gare du Nord I felt a tingle of nerves cascade through my body: I had become a naturalised British citizen only the year before. As I got closer to border control my palms became sweaty, clutching my new passport. A voice inside told me the severe-looking French officers would not accept that I really was British and would not allow me to enter France. To my great surprise, they did.
Back then, becoming a British citizen was a dull bureaucratic procedure. When my family arrived as refugees from Somalia’s civil war a few days after Christmas 1994, we were processed at the airport, and then largely forgotten. A few years after I got my passport all that changed: from 2004 adults who applied for British citizenship were required to attend a ceremony; to take an oath of allegiance to the monarch and make a pledge to the UK.
These ceremonies, organised by local authorities in town halls up and down the country, marked a shift in how the British state viewed citizenship. Before, it was a result of how long you’d stayed in Britain; now it was supposed to be earned through active participation in society. In 2002, the government had also introduced a “Life in the UK” test for prospective citizens. The tests point to something important: being a citizen on paper is not the same as truly belonging. Official Britain has been happy to celebrate symbols of multiculturalism – the curry house and the Notting Hill Carnival – while ignoring the divisions between communities. Nor did the state give much of a helping hand to newcomers: there was little effort made to help families like mine learn English.
But in the last 15 years, since around the time I first used my new passport, something has changed. While citizenship, participation and “shared values” have been given ever more emphasis, they’ve been accompanied by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion around people of Muslim background, particularly those who were born overseas or hold dual nationality. It’s making people like me, who have struggled to become British, feel like second-class citizens.
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When I arrived in Britain aged nine, I spoke no English and knew virtually nothing about this island. My family was moved into a run-down hostel on London’s Camden Road, which housed refugees – Kurds, Bosnians, Kosovans. Spending my first few months in Britain among other new arrivals was an interesting experience; although like my family they were Muslim, their habits were different to ours. The Balkan refugees liked to drink vodka. After some months we had to move, this time to Colindale in north London.
Colindale was home to a large white working-class community, and our arrival was met with hostility. There were no warm welcomes from the locals, just a cold thud. None of my family spoke English, but I had soon mastered a few phrases in my new tongue: “Excuse me”, “How much is this?”, “Can I have...?”, “Thank you”. It was enough to allow us to navigate our way through the maze of shops in Grahame Park, the largest council estate in Barnet. This estate had opened in 1971, conceived as a garden city, but by the mid-90s it had fallen into decay and isolation. This brick city became our home. As with other refugee communities before us, Britain had been generous in giving Somalis sanctuary, but was too indifferent to help us truly join in. Families like mine were plunged into unfamiliar cities, alienated and unable to make sense of our new homes. For us, there were no guidebooks on how to fit into British society or a map of how to become a citizen.
My family – the only black family on our street – stuck out like a sore thumb. Some neighbours would throw rubbish into our garden, perhaps because they disapproved of our presence. That first winter in Britain was brutal for us; we had never experienced anything like it and my lips cracked. But whenever it snowed I would run out to the street, stand in the cold, chest out and palms ready to meet the sky, and for the first time feel the sensation of snowflakes on my hands. The following summer I spent my days picking cherries and blasting Shaggy’s “Boombastic” on my cherished cassette player. But I also realised just how different I was from the children around me. Though most of them were polite, others called me names I did not understand. At the local playground they would not let me join in their games; instead they would stare at me. I knew then, aged 11, that there was a distance between them and me, which even childhood curiosity could not overcome.
Although it was hard for me to fit in and make new friends, at least my English was improving. This was not the case for the rest of my family, so they held onto each other, afraid of what was outside our four walls. It was mundane growing up in working-class suburbia: we rarely left our street, except for occasional visits to the Indian cash-and-carry in Kingsbury to buy lamb, cumin and basmati rice. Sometimes one of our neighbours would swerve his van close to the pavement edge if it rained and he happened to spot my mother walking past, so he could splash her long dirac and hijab with dirty water. If he succeeded, he would lean out of the window, thumbs up, laughing hysterically. My mother’s response was always the same. She would walk back to the house, grab a towel and dry herself.
At secondary school in Edgware, the children were still mostly white, but there was a sizeable minority of Sikhs and Hindus. My new classmates would laugh at how I pronounced certain English words. I couldn’t say “congratulations” properly, the difficult part being the “gra”. I would perform saying that word, much to the amusement of my classmates. As the end of term approached, classmates would ask where I was going on holiday. I would tell them, “Nowhere”, adding, “I don’t have a passport”.
When I was in my early teens we were rehoused and I had to move to the South Camden Community School in Somers Town. Here, a dozen languages were spoken and you could count the number of white students in my year on two hands. There was tension in the air and pupils were mostly segregated along ethnic lines – Turks, Bengalis, English, Somalis, Portuguese. Turf wars were not uncommon and fights broke out at the school gates. The British National Party targeted the area in the mid-1990s, seeking to exploit the murder of a white teenager by a Bengali gang. At one point a halal butcher was firebombed.
Though I grew up minutes from the centre of Europe’s biggest city, I rarely ventured far beyond my own community. For us, there were no trips to museums, seaside excursions or cinema visits. MTV Base, the chicken shop and McDonalds marked my teen years. I had little connection to other parts of Britain, beyond the snippets of middle-class life I observed via my white teachers. And I was still living with refugee documents, given “indefinite leave to remain” that could be revoked at some future point. I realised then that no amount of identification with my newfound culture could make up for the reality that, without naturalisation, I was not considered British.
At 16, I took my GCSEs and got the grades to leave behind one of the worst state schools in London for one of the best: the mixed Sixth Form at Camden School for Girls. Most of the teens at my new school had previously attended some of Britain’s best private schools – City of London, Westminster, Highgate – and were in the majority white and middle-class.
It was strange to go from a Muslim-majority school to a sixth form where the children of London’s liberal set attended: only a mile apart, but worlds removed. I am not certain my family understood this change. My cousins thought it was weird I did not attend the local college, but my old teachers insisted I go to the sixth form if I wanted to get into a good university. A few days after starting there I got my naturalisation certificate, which opened the way for me to apply for my British passport.
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Around the time I became a British citizen, the political mood had started to shift. In the summer of 2001, Britain experienced its worst race riots in a generation. These riots, involving white and Asian communities in towns in the north west of England, were short but violent. They provoked a fraught public conversation on Muslims’ perceived lack of integration, and how we could live together in a multi-ethnic society. This conversation was intensified by the 9/11 attacks in the US. President George W Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror” created a binary between the good and the bad immigrant, and the moderate and the radical Muslim. The London Tube bombings of 2005 added yet more intensity to the conversation in Britain.
Politicians from across the spectrum agreed that a shared British identity was important, but they couldn’t agree on what that might be. In 2004, the Conservative leader Michael Howard had referred to “The British Dream” when speaking about his Jewish immigrant roots. After 2005, he wrote in the Guardian that the Tube attacks had “shattered” complacency about Britain’s record on integration. Britain had to face “the terrible truth of being the first western country to have suffered terrorist attacks perpetrated by ‘home-grown’ suicide bombers – born and educated in Britain.” Many commentators questioned whether being a Muslim and British were consistent identities; indeed whether Islam itself was compatible with liberal democracy.
Howard defined a shared identity through institutions like democracy, monarchy, the rule of law and a national history. But others argued that making a checklist was a very un-British thing to do. Labour’s Gordon Brown, in a 2004 article for the Guardian, wrote that liberty, tolerance and fair play were the core values of Britishness. While acknowledging such values exist in other cultures and countries, he went on to say when these values are combined together they make a “distinctive Britishness that has been manifest throughout our history and has shaped it”.
For me, at least, becoming a British citizen was a major milestone. It not only signalled that I felt increasingly British but that I now had the legal right to feel this way.
But my new identity was less secure than I realised. Only a few months after my trip to Paris, the Blair government decided to use a little-known law – the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act – to revoke the citizenship of naturalised British persons, largely in terrorism cases. Before 1914, British citizenship once obtained could only be given up voluntarily by an individual, but that changed with the advent of the First World War. According to the Oxford politics professor Matthew Gibney, the 1914 Act was a response to anti-German sentiment and fears about the loyalty of people with dual British-German citizenship. A further law, passed in 1918, created new and wide-ranging grounds to revoke citizenship.
In theory, since 1918, the Home Secretary has had the power to remove a naturalised person or dual nationality holder’s British citizenship if it was considered “conducive to the public good”, but a 1981 law prevented them from doing so if it made the person stateless. Since 9/11, that restraint has been gradually abandoned.
In 2006, the Home Secretary was given further powers to revoke British citizenship. At the time, the government sought to allay concerns about misuse of these powers. “The Secretary of State cannot make an order on a whim,” the Home Office minister Angela Eagle had said when the law was first proposed, “and he will be subject to judicial oversight when he makes an order.”
Although the post-9/11 measures were initially presented as temporary, they have become permanent. And the Home Secretary can strip people of their citizenship without giving a clear reason; no court approval is required, and the person concerned does not need to have committed a crime. The practice is growing. Under Labour just five people had their citizenship removed, but when Theresa May was at the Home Office 37 people were stripped of their citizenship, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Yet these near-arbitrary powers have caused remarkably little concern.
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People have largely accepted these new powers because they are presented as a way to keep the country safe from terrorism. After 9/11, the public became more aware of the Islamist preachers who had made London their home in the preceding decades. Abu Hamza, the Imam of Finsbury Park mosque, who became a notorious tabloid villain, was, like me, a naturalised British citizen. For several years as a teenager, I attended the Finsbury Park Mosque. The mosque was small; I remember the smell of tea, incense and feet which greeted you every time you walked in. I also remember the eclectic mix of worshippers who visited: Algerians, Afghans, Somalis and Moroccans. Unlike Muslims of South Asian background, few of these people had long-standing colonial ties to Britain; most had fled civil war in their home countries, while some of the North Africans had left France because they felt it treated Muslims too harshly. The mosque was not affiliated with the Muslim Association of Britain, and its preachers promoted a Salafi form of Islam.
I remember Abu Hamza as a larger than life character whose presence dominated mosque life, especially at Friday prayers when he would go into very long sermons – usually about the dangers of becoming too British. Attending this mosque was like being cocooned from the realities of modern life. I recall Abu Hamza once going off about how as young Muslim teens we were not to follow the “kuffar” in their habit of engaging in premarital sex. For much of my teens, this mosque held a kind of control over me, based on fear. That changed when I moved to my new sixth form and felt able to start exploring the world for myself, and began to realise that I could be secular, liberal and humanist.
I went in one direction, but other people I knew chose different paths. Before 2001 I don’t recall many women wearing the niqab, but as the years wore on it became a more common sight on the streets of London. My sister even began to wear one; contrary to media stereotypes of women being coerced, she chose to, as did many of the young women I had gone to school with. The way that young Muslims practised Islam in Britain changed, in line with global developments. They dropped the varied cultural baggage of their parents’ versions of the religion and began a journey to a distinct British Islam – something that connected the Somali refugee and the second-generation Bangladeshi, the Irish and Jamaican converts.
Some of the white working-class kids I grew up with converted to Islam. Daniel became Yusef and Emma became Khadija. Before I knew it they were giving me advice about how Muslims should behave. I observed this role reversal with amusement; one boy in particular would preach to me while incessantly saying “bruv”. I also saw the young men I had grown up with move away from a life sat on bikes wearing hoods under bridges in Camden listening to grime, to practising their Islam more visibly. Out went the sneaky pints, spliffs and casual sex. Now it was beards, sermons about the faith and handing out Islamic leaflets on street corners. But I did not heed their words. When I was 16 I stopped attending the mosque and I began to question my faith.
Mahdi Hashi was one of the young men I grew up with. Hashi was another child refugee from Somalia. As a teenager he used to complain that he was being followed by the British security services. He said they wanted to make him an informant. Hashi was not alone; in 2009, he and other young Muslim men from Camden took their allegations to the press. One said a man posing as postal worker turned up at his door and told him that if he did not cooperate with the security services, then his safety could not be guaranteed if he ever left Britain.
For most newcomers, citizenship is not just confirmation of an identity, it is also about protection: that you will be guaranteed rights and treated according to the law. Hashi lost that protection. In 2009 he left for Somalia because, his family say, of harassment by the security services. In June 2012, his family received a letter informing them he was to lose his British citizenship. Later that summer Hashi turned up in Djibouti, a tiny former French colony on the Red Sea. He was arrested. He alleges that he was threatened with physical abuse and rape if he did not cooperate with authorities in Djibouti – and he alleges US officials questioned him. In November 2012, he was given over to the Americans and taken to the US without any formal extradition proceedings. In 2016 Hashi was sentenced in New York to nine years in prison for allegedly supporting the jihadist group al-Shabaab. He will be deported to Somalia upon his release.
Hashi’s case is not unique. Bilal Berjawi, who came to Britain from Lebanon as a child, had his British citizenship revoked in 2012 and was killed in a US drone strike on the outskirts of Mogadishu. His friend Mohamed Sakr, who held dual British-Egyptian nationality, was also killed by drone strike in Somalia after he had been stripped of his UK citizenship. Together with a third friend, the two young men had visited Tanzania in 2009 on what they claimed was a safari trip, but were arrested, accused of trying to reach Somalia and returned to the UK. The third friend was Mohammed Emwazi, now better known as the ISIS executioner “Jihadi John”.
The war in Syria, and the attraction that ISIS and other jihadist groups hold for a small minority of British Muslims, has led to a further increase in citizenship-stripping. In 2013 Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, removed the citizenship of 13 people who had left for Syria. The government has a duty to protect people, but the tool it is using will have wider, damaging consequences.
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The right of newcomers to be considered fully British has been a long struggle. The first border controls of the 20th century were introduced to stop the movement of “alien” Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. In 1948, the British Nationality Act gave citizenship to anyone who had been a subject of Empire, but those black and Asian migrants who took up the offer – indeed, who often thought of themselves as British – were met with shocking racism: with “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. The 1962 Immigration Act began to limit the citizenship rights of people from the non-white colonies; and by the 1982 Act it was all over.
Now we are caught in a paradox, where the state is demanding more effort than ever on the part of the migrant to integrate, but your citizenship is never fully guaranteed. Fifteen years on from the events of 9/11, gaining British citizenship is a much tougher process. And becoming a naturalised citizen is no longer a guarantee against the political whims of the day: you are, in effect, a second-class citizen. Citizenship-stripping is now a fixture of the state, and it’s defended in the usual vein, which is to say: “if you have not done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” The usual caveat is that this concerns terrorists and criminals, a red herring that masks the true purpose of such laws, which is to empower the state at the expense of ordinary people. The philosopher Hannah Arendt memorably described citizenship as “the right to have rights”, but for people of migrant background such as myself, this is being eroded. We are not a small group: according to the 2011 census there are 3.4 million naturalised Brits.
As I was writing this piece, Donald Trump issued his executive order that bans people from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Somalia, from entering the US – even if they hold dual nationality. I happened to be visiting New York at the time, and the ban has left me wondering if I’ll ever be allowed to again; despite assurances from Britain’s government, it remains unclear whether the ban applies to people who hold a British passport but were born overseas. Trump’s ban did not happen in a vacuum: there is a thread linking the anti-terror policies of Western governments and this extreme new step.
Today I no longer feel so safe in my status as a naturalised British citizen, and it’s not just the UK: in other liberal democracies such as Australia and Canada, moves are under way to enable citizenship-stripping – sending people like me a clear message that our citizenship is permanently up for review.