Following in the tradition of past waves of migrants who found their feet before their voices, a new generation of young Britons of Arab origin are confidently demanding to be heard.
Twenty-six-year-old Sharif Nashashibi is a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait but grew up in London, with a Jordanian passport. A charismatic and highly articulate speaker, his London-based website Arab Media Watch is part of the wave clearing a way for this new Arab lobby.
“The older generation came here from the Middle East and I guess they weren’t used to being able to express their feelings without a sense of fear,” he says.
“I know a lot of them are afraid of going out on demonstrations in case they’re filmed. There is a paranoia, which is understandable.”
“But this younger generation has been born and brought up in Britain. They feel British. They don’t have Arabic accents. They’re not afraid of speaking out and they’re very eloquent.”
The Muslim Association of Britain’s demonstration in support of the Intifada in the spring of 2002 was a key turning point in the trajectory of this new generation. Up to 100,000 people marched in the largest pro-Palestinian protest London had ever seen.
“Growing up as a kid during the first Intifada, I got upset when I saw people being shot,” Sharif says. “Then when my parents told me I was a Palestinian, I felt very angry that they’d kept it from me for so long.”
Today, Sharif is still trying to expose facts and information hidden from sight. His professional and constantly updated website, Arab Media Watch, brings together hundreds of activists – mainly Muslims, but also Christians and Jews – to monitor media reports and take action.
A study by the Glasgow University Media Group study found that the vast majority of BBC news consumers did not know if Palestinians were occupying Israel or vice versa
Alerts over biased stories are sent out, along with a call for people to write or telephone news executives to register their protests. They have been kept busy since the beginning of the Intifada.
A recent study by the Glasgow University Media Group study found that the vast majority of BBC news consumers did not know if Palestinians were occupying Israel or vice versa.
It also found that they did not even know whether settlers in the occupied territories were Israeli or Palestinian.
Israeli lobbyists of course would dispute such research. Shulie Davidovitch, the press secretary of the Israeli embassy in London believes the British media is biased against Israel and she is in no doubt as to the reason why.
“The Muslim community in this country constitutes a huge and very powerful lobby,” she says.
“There’s no comparison between the numbers of Jews and Muslims living here, or between the influence of the many Arab countries – with all their oil wealth – and tiny Israel, which is always blamed for everything.”
Sharif, however, smiles at such estimations of his group’s strength. “I’m flattered,” he says, “and they are right to be scared. It shows we are giving them a run for their money. But our potential has not nearly been reached. Our main pitfall is a lack of funding.”
A fifth of all fatal shootings by
Israeli forces kill children, the
majority are shot in the head
“The pro-Israel lobby is not as powerful as people feel. There are more Muslims here, but they haven’t all been mobilised yet. It is happening though and eventually we will get the upper hand because this is a just cause.”
“People understand that occupation, settlements, house demolitions and colonisation are a universal wrong whether they’re carried out against Palestinians, Chechens or Aborigines.”
Certainly, Sharif claims many successes in forcing media groups to change inaccurate or prejudicial phrases and language in reports.
“They rarely ever say that the settlements are illegal and they always get the number of settlers wrong,” he says for starters.
But currently, AMW is honing its campaign on use of the term ‘security fence’ to describe the wall being built in the West Bank.
“It’s more than a fence,” Sharif says, his eyes widening with passion. “It’s a huge wall with dugouts and everything. To call it a security fence without quotation marks implicitly accepts the Israeli justification for it – that it’s about security.”
Security fence is an apartheid wall
Palestinians argue the structure should be called “the apartheid wall” because it annexes their territory, seizes resources, splits up families and imprisons an entire people behind Israeli watchtowers.
Sharif shows me an email AMW has just received from BBC News Online in response to a letter of protest sent by an activist. “We feel we are right to use the term 'security fence',” the letter begins, “as this is what Israel is calling it.”
Arab Media Watch is not alone in complaining about such attitudes. From the Muslim Public Affairs Committee to the Friends of al-Aqsa, there are now many lobby groups springing up around the country.
They are also increasingly effective, as the row over an episode of the BBC drama Spooks, featuring a brainwashed Muslim "suicide bomber" wandering around a schoolyard, demonstrated.
Pressing the right buttons
However, according to one senior source at The Guardian newspaper, the pro-Israel lobby is still highly influential in setting the tone of many major Middle Eastern news stories. “The Palestinians and Arabs try to do the same,” she says, “but they’re in a completely different position.”
“They write to people who do sympathetic pieces saying ‘thanks very much, you must be under a lot of pressure’, whereas the pro-Israel groups focus aggressively on issues like what words we put in headlines, which pictures are used, how suicide bombings are reported. They know which buttons to press from a journalistic sensitivity.”
The new Arab lobby in Britain is trying to pick up on exactly these journalistic issues. It has clearly come a long way in a very short time.