With general elections taking place in the UK next month, it is an opportune time to reflect on the strides made by the country’s Arab and Muslim communities, but also what they have yet to achieve.
On the plus side, the UK’s major political parties (with the obvious exception of UKIP) are actively courting these communities. This did not used to happen - certainly nowhere near the same extent - as recently as the 1990s. It is a sign not of these parties voluntarily reaching out, but realizing - due to these communities’ increasing integration, organization and electoral savvy - that it is in their interests to do so.
Let your local candidates know which issues mean most to you, and whether you feel they are addressing them adequately. This will make your vote count
However, there is a widespread and justified sense among Arabs and Muslims in Britain that political parties are mainly interested in them in the run up to elections, when they are told what they want to hear but let down afterwards, with this cycle repeated every four years or so.
One of the issues dear to British Arabs and Muslims - one over which they feel disappointed by every government - is the Arab-Israeli conflict. It affects not just the Palestinians but the entire region, and because it is a long-festering human rights issue, it is an international one.
Politicians know the buzz words - for example, they express support for a two-state solution and condemn Israeli settlements on occupied territory. However, their views tend to be shaped through the prism of Israeli security, which to them is paramount. Additionally, the notion of applying meaningful pressure or penalties to end Israel’s injustices, abuses and aggressions is largely absent, as if words alone will suffice.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has an excellent initiative whereby people can use its website to find out who their local parliamentary candidates are, have a pre-written letter sent to them asking their views on various aspects of the conflict and be notified of responses.
This is very useful in terms of establishing a database of candidates’ and MPs’ views and holding them accountable. It is reminiscent of a previous initiative enabling people to find out how their MPs voted with regard to the invasion of Iraq.
However, the biggest remaining obstacle is the disconnect between public opinion and MPs on one hand, and the government on the other. A stark example is last year’s parliamentary vote on recognizing Palestine.
Despite the vote being overwhelmingly in favor, the government insisted it would not act on it - a slap in the face for democracy. As opinion polls over the years have shown increasing public sympathy for the Palestinians (more so than sympathy for Israel), this disconnect is widening, not just in Britain but across Europe.
Certainly in Britain’s case, this has been a problem of successive governments. I have experienced this directly through meetings - as part of delegations of Arab community figures - with every government since and including that of Tony Blair.
Illusion of dialogue
We would be invited on the basis of dialogue, but the reality would be more of a monologue. It became clear that the intention was not to hear and address Arab concerns, but to justify British policy while portraying the government as interested in and engaged with the community.
We were told repeatedly by successive governments that there would be no pressure applied on Israel, and that it would basically be held to a different standard than other states in the region. For example, government officials would justify sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, but said sanctioning Israel for actually possessing nuclear weapons was out of the question.
When I was invited by phone for a second time to such a meeting with the current government, I made my aforementioned feelings clear and said I would no longer attend such meetings because nothing ever came of them. When the official inviting me said they were beneficial, I asked her to cite one tangible outcome of these meetings, which she could not. Instead, she said in frustration that I had made her late to another meeting!
On another memorable occasion, then-Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett met with a large audience of Arab community figures, myself included. There was a lot of excitement about the unprecedented nature of such a meeting.
However, Beckett spent just several minutes with us. She said hello to a few ambassadors; gave a short speech in which she was perceived to basically tell the Arab community to move on from the occupations of Iraq and Palestine as well as the latest Israeli invasion of Lebanon; and abruptly left.
Her colleague David Milliband was a special guest at a well-attended Arab event and looked disinterested and keen to leave throughout. These meetings gave me the distinct impression that they were merely photo opportunities for both sides: for politicians to display their outreach, and for Arabs to feel important.
Change from within
All this has contributed to an ongoing debate - common among disenfranchised minorities in any democracy - about whether to engage in the system in order to change it from within, or whether to boycott it so as not to legitimize its faults. Boycotts are only effective when enough people heed them, otherwise those who do so simply end up without a voice and without wider society noticing.
Arab and Muslim communities in Britain are too small to make a boycott effective, as much as the desire to do so out of a sense of alienation is understandable. It also ignores the progress made in recent years by these communities - which were relatively inactive and invisible not so long ago - as well as the fact that as citizens, they are affected by domestic issues that are irrelevant to their faith or ethnicity.
As such, it is best to engage with - and hopefully improve - the system from within, and from the ground up. It is important to let your local candidates know which issues mean most to you, and whether you feel they are addressing them adequately. This will make your vote count.
Public and parliamentary sympathy, particularly for the Palestinian cause, is increasing. Eventually governments will have to heed the will of the electorate and its representatives. We just have to make it harder for them to ignore. Such fundamental change requires time and effort, but it is possible and already under way.
By: Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East.