There has been very little written about Iranians in the United Kingdom. This lack of information could be due to a number of reasons, including the relatively small number of Iranians in the UK, the fact that Iranians do not live in a concentrated area like many other groupings; and finally, at least when I’ve carried out my research between 1995 -2000, because they were not a group that seemed to pose social problems for British society and therefore not drawing the public eye. There has been, however, more interest lately with the increasing numbers of Iranians seeking asylum in the UK, the detention of British soldiers, and the ongoing tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme. The following will give an overview of my research that concentrated on Iranians who came to London after the Revolution, and provide some general observations on both the developments and challenges concerning the representation of Iranians in the mainstream in the UK in more recent years.
Figures from the mid-terms results of the last census in 2001 recorded that 40,767 Iranians live in England and Wales. It indicated that there were 32,262 Iranian nationals who are residents. Note that these figures do not include the children born to Iranian parents, nor those whose immigration status is unclear. According to the Iranian consulate in London, approximately 75,000 Iranians are living in Britain, half of which in the London area. They also reported that around 35,000 Iranians are registered at the consulate.
Iranians have featured among the top ten nationalities applying for asylum in the UK every year since 2000. Between 1989 and 1999 asylum applications made by Iranians averaged at 589 per year; since 2000, applications have been averaging 3359 per annum. Figures show that between 1989 and 1999 71% of initial decisions resulted in recognition as a refugee or grants of exceptional leave to remain. Since 2000, this figure has been averaging at 13.5%.
Although good information is hard to come by, available data points to substantial communities in London and surrounding boroughs (which host by far the largest numbers), Cardiff and Swansea, Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds, Glasgow, and Wolverhampton.
Estimates from Iranians during interviews were greatly varied and tended to be much higher than the statistics. I heard a broad range of estimates, with many guessing between 100,000-300,000.
Iranians living in London, like the wider diaspora, are from a range of socio-economic, political, religious and ethnic backgrounds. It is certainly a heterogeneous group.
Generally speaking, they did not plan on living in UK permanently. Many described their initial years during the 1980s as a period of restlessness and remorse as their thoughts were absorbed in the transition that was taking place back home. Due to a number of reasons, including Khomeini’s death, the resilience of the Iranian government and their continued absence from Iran many started to realise the permanence of their stay. While it has been important for Iranians to successfully adapt to aspects of British society, many feared losing their sense of being Iranian and have made great efforts in maintaining and renewing Iranian cultural forms and the Persian language in London.
It was during this period a growing number of Iranian cultural, media, religious and business centres and activities started to emerge in London, including a number of Persian language schools and libraries, cultural celebrations (particularly for Noruz, the Iranian New Year), informal and formal religious centres, poetry readings, contemporary and classical music concerts, films, comedy shows, charity groups and discos and not to mention several wonderful Iranian Restaurants. The number of Iranian newspapers, magazines and journals printed in London, and a growing number of web sites, started to turn to articles which discussed cultural dislocation and questions surrounding settlement.
It is important to note that the ways Iranians express themselves through the cultural and media forms is complex and multifaceted and must be examined in relation to interrelated factors gender, generation, education, wealth, ethnicity, and depends on their interaction with shifting dynamics of London life.
Being an Iranian Shi’a Muslim in London
Although I did not plan on focusing on religious identity on the onset of my research, I found many of conversations and interviews turning to religion. I found, for instance, both practicing and non-practicing Iranians from Muslims backgrounds were grappling with issues surrounding Islam. Many, for instance, articulated that their religion and culture was hijacked and misrepresented both by the government in Iran and the number of Muslims leaders in London (who are mainly from Pakistani and Indian backgrounds) and were effective in shaping discourses on Muslims in Britain. I was told that ‘real’ Shi’a Islam cannot be judged by politicised notions of Islam, or the stereotypes and media images that totalised ‘Muslim culture’.
I was also told that London was in need of facilities and facilitators to cater to various customs and traditions such as wedding ceremonies, significant days on the Shi’a calendar (like Ashura which just passed), funerals and so on. These circumstances created a discursive space for Iranians to discuss and debate the meaning and authenticity of Islam and the status and practices of shia Muslims practices in Britain and beyond. The focus then narrows in my book to the next level of analysis. This is where I concentrate on the development of specific Iranian religious institutions and gatherings, including Sufi Orders, women-only gatherings (sofrehs), religious charity organisations, mosques and schools, - some financed by the Iranian government while others were categorically not. I also got to know Iranian Christian churches consisting of former Muslims who are now born-again Christians.
By focusing on these seemingly ‘invisible’ arenas demonstrates how some Iranians come together to think through, and question, different interpretations and practices of their traditions. Women’s gatherings, for instance, became a local domain for some women to make vows (nazr) and talk about the diverse positions developing in different social scenes in London and Iran. Looking briefly at the Sufi orders showed how local experience also becomes intertwined with the preservation of traditions that are often constructed to characterise a return to a legitimate, great, pure, and authentic Iranian past – spaces of convergence for some Iranians to transcend negative stereotypes of Muslims and Iranian. They were places to rebuild the foundations needed for customs and cultural forms and increasingly to help manage their international families, who live in and between London, Tehran and beyond.
Although I focused on religious practices, there are many different ways, through the arts, literature, political and civil society groups etc. that Iranians are aiming to and successfully striking a creative balance between their Iranian and British cultural identities. Overall I have found that preserving aspects of Iranian culture and adaptation to British society are both processes at work.
After my research was published, I have fallen into an intermediary role of being one of the persons asked by the British media, the foreign and home office, the refugee council, academics, and the arts world to introduce them to the relevant Iranian associations or individuals to interview or assist them with their respective projects. I have observed a general growth and crystalisation of Iranian networks and leaders among Iranian communities in London. This growth, however, has been patchy and uneven. For example, Iranian music, film and the arts - through organisations such as Nava arts and Iranian heritage projects - have been successfully carving pathways to British publics and have secured an institutional base and reputation in the British mainstream. Through a range of different projects they have encouraged interaction in the cultural fields between Iran, the UK and the diaspora communities.
There is however a need for wider representation and access to the array of interests, talents and opinions found among the Iranians in the UK, which inevitably links to the wider diaspora and Iran itself. Many Iranians are invisible in the UK. Despite the number of organisations, dealing mostly with newly arrived asylum seekers and refugee issues, it’s not easy for researchers, journalists, and the foreign office to approach and understand the full picture of the complex and heterogeneous fabric of Iranians in the UK.
In order for British mainstream institutions to learn more about the internal dynamics of the Iranian population in the UK, existing Iranian organisations could be more transparent and open about their organisations. There is plenty of room for the development of more intermediary groups to represent a wider cross section of Iranians in the UK. Not surprisingly, it is often those who are busy and successful with their careers, interests, family and home life that are not involved in and represented by civil society organisations.
Groups that are living in and between several cultures are increasingly being seen as valuable networks for intellectual, cultural and educational exchange throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The council of Europe, The British council and the Art council, for instance, have been vocal in saying diasporic communities can benefit both countries of origin and countries of settlement and have promoted a balance between integration and maintaining links with the countries of origin. Whereas my research in the past demonstrated that Iranians – in many cases traveling back and forth from Iran and London - are preserving aspects of their Iranian culture and adapting to British society, more leadership or intermediary bodies that promotes awareness of the wide range of Iranian political and economic experiences and opinions are in need.
Source: Home Office, Asylum Statistics 1997; Home Office, Asylum Statistics 2005; Home Office, Asylum Statistics: 4th Quarter 2006. www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/immigration1.html
Based on 2001 Census figures, Asylum Resources Directorate dispersal figures for 2006, and the location of RCOs as reported on the Refugee Council contacts database.