London, United Kingdom (NI) – ‘Gorgeous George’ Galloway is different. How many working class boys from Dundee have both sat at Yasser Arafat’s bedside when he died, and impersonated a cat on Celebrity Big Brother? Galloway is a human Venn diagram – a socialist casanova, the lovechild of Guevara and Berlusconi – and he’s running for mayor of London.
‘My mother said she knew I was going to be different because I was the only boy who was on the side of the “Indians” against the cowboys. Instinctively I knew that the villains were the white people.’
Galloway hasn’t changed much since then: he’s the teetotal dissident to New Labour’s champagne socialists. If he’d followed his old comrades into Blairite power, I’d be sitting in the Palace of Westminster having lunch with Lord Galloway of Dundee. He’s always been on the side of the ‘Indians’, whether they were Irish, black South African, or Palestinian. It’s the latter that has caused him the most grief – exactly how sympathetic is he to Hamas?
I was the only boy who was on the side of the ‘Indians’ against the cowboys
‘Hamas have absolutely no extra-territorial ambitions whatsoever. They are a Palestinian resistance movement, but they don’t care whether there are red lights in Soho. Such a movement can and should be negotiated with, because it has limited objectives.’
But those objectives include the destruction of Israel and blowing up Israeli civilians. Isn’t asking Israelis to negotiate with Hamas like asking Turkeys to vote for Christmas? ‘There’s never any excuse to target civilians. You use the word “destruction” (of Israel). Hamas want to see the destruction of the apartheid state structure. I support one democratic state called Israel-Palestine (or Palestine-Israel).’
It’s nice to imagine a future where Israelis and Palestinians can finally focus on the really big issues – like how much tahini to use in Hummus. He senses that I’m not convinced, but insists that ‘it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Effectively that (one state) is what we have now, only the occupied people don’t have any rights and don’t have any votes.’
Galloway knows the Middle East as well as some politicians know the inside of a pig’s mouth. But how consistent is he? He works for the Iranian state broadcaster and even actively supported President Ahmadinejad’s election campaign. He claims to be completely independent of the Iranian government – so why put Iran on a pedestal?
‘I so don’t put Iran on a pedestal. I don’t even like Iranians. The period of sectarianisation of Iraqi politics was facilitated by Iran. People who blame Iran for the rise of ISIS have a point. But I believe that Ahmadinejad was the winner of that election – and Assad would win a general election in Syria.’
Since he’s sticking up for Bashar al-Assad too, it occurs to me that maybe he just doesn’t enjoy the number one pastime of the British political class – dissing brown people’s governments and replacing them with one of their mates from the golf club. Alas, his logic doesn’t apply to King Salman of Saudi Arabia: ‘If there were free elections in Saudi Arabia Osama bin Laden would have won.’
I imagine a parallel universe where President Bin Laden propped his Kalashnikov up on the lecturn at the UN General Assembly and complained that the U.S. kept unjustifiably vetoing his resolution to destroy America. I can’t see Saudis giving up their leadership of the Arab world to be a North Korea with shopping malls.
But have British muslims been too caught up in big global issues instead of focusing on what’s happening at home? Muslims in London or Leeds can make a difference to Britain’s child poverty, but they can’t lift the blockade of Gaza. I wonder if Galloway and the Respect party have helped people like the muslim brotherhood gain prominence in the muslim community. And he seems to understand the brotherhood (or Ikhwan, as he calls them, in near-perfect Arabic with just a touch of a Scottish accent):
‘I absolutely accept that the majority of Islamic forces in Britain are Ikhwan – I’m not. But you can’t wish away a movement of millions of people. There is a section, and it’s not a tiny section, which is prey to sectarian mentality and sometimes worse. And I think the Ikhwan must take some of the responsibility for that.’
‘The extent of foreign funding of British mosques is shocking. You’re not allowed to foreign-fund political parties. So why allow foreign funding of mosques, with the political impact that a mosque necessarily has? Foreign funding of political parties is illegal and so should be foreign funding of mosques. That would change the landscape of mosques in Britain very significantly – for the better.’
Making sure British mosques are actually British would be a good idea. Maybe the government could even make it part of the Prevent strategy, which so far has left mosque Imams alone as long as they’re not physically handing out London underground maps and suicide belts after Friday prayers. The government have focused instead on convincing teachers to grass up their pupils to MI5 for thought crimes like questioning our foreign policy, and spelling crimes like spelling ‘terraced’ as ‘terrorist’. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron handed over the entire anti-terrorism strategy to teachers: ‘Ahmed in the back row, stop chatting or it’s detention – in Guantanamo’. Galloway doesn’t even call it the Prevent strategy:
This lovey-dovey stuff is all very well but what Londoners really want from a mayor is someone who can sort out the Tube, which is more important to them than their own children. A recent poll found that 99.9 per cent of Londoners would sacrifice their firstborn as an offering to the RMT union if that meant the 24-hour Night Tube happens. And the other 0.1 per cent are tube drivers. Galloway is unequivocal that he can get results:
‘There’s absolutely no reason to imagine that it’s not still happening. There has been a coverup, that’s obviously true. Amongst the English ruling class in their public school system sexual dysfunctionality has been prevalent for generations. The buttoned up, sexually frustrated upper class character hides a lot of dark impulses. It’s not a coincidence that corporal punishment as a sexual practice is known in France as le vice anglais.’ I notice that his Arabic accent is better than his French.
Politicians who are victims of child abuse can develop a relentless pursuit of justice, an obsession with righting a wrong – Gerry Adams comes to mind. Could the abuse have had a political effect on Galloway? ‘It would be that it intensified my hatred for powerful people imposing themselves on less powerful people. Some might think it has something to do with my attitude to the military. He had the Colonel’s regalia. He was acting as a member of the elite, representing the queen. I joined Labour a year after it happened.’
‘That was very cathartic’ Galloway says as we walk out of the Groucho Club in Soho together. He smiles as he strides ahead of me, and I know he’s back in performance mode, looking for more Red Indians to cheer on – this time, they just might be Londoners.
This report prepared by Omar Hamdi for New Internationalist.