Eastenders in turmoil, a fatwa on Galloway, and the most dangerous campaign in Britain

For several years he has been grovelling at the feet of the most hardline Muslim groups in the UK
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The Independent Online

When I saw George Galloway at the hustings in Mile End on Wednesday night, he seemed uncharacteristically pale and shaken. Throughout the election campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow - where he is standing as the Respect candidate against the Labour MP Oona King - he has been running a high-volume, high-rage contest. Most of his campaign has consisted of legitimate political comment, even if I disagree: attacking the war as "evil", savaging King as "a Blairite android", and so on.

When I saw George Galloway at the hustings in Mile End on Wednesday night, he seemed uncharacteristically pale and shaken. Throughout the election campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow - where he is standing as the Respect candidate against the Labour MP Oona King - he has been running a high-volume, high-rage contest. Most of his campaign has consisted of legitimate political comment, even if I disagree: attacking the war as "evil", savaging King as "a Blairite android", and so on.

But some has burst beyond those boundaries: he has been telling the most alienated Muslim men in Britain that Tony Blair is "waging a war on Muslims ... at home and abroad". He is nudging towards a kind of inverse Powellism that tells the Muslim community it is under siege from a brutal terrorist state that will stop at nothing. Rivers of blood, he implies, are only months away.

The mood was becoming so ugly that I began to fret there would be violence. King was being attacked with eggs hurled by young Muslim men everywhere she went. Her tyres were slashed. Was worse on the way? At the first set of hustings, I saw similar men threatening Labour Party members as they spoke against Galloway, slamming their fists into their palms.

Somewhere at the back of my mind, I kept thinking about Theo Van Gogh, beheaded by an Islamic fundamentalist in the streets of Amsterdam with a butcher's knife. His "crime" was to make a film exposing domestic violence in the Dutch-Muslim community - and attached to his corpse was a death threat against a young immigrant MP. She is still in hiding. If it happens in this country, I kept thinking, it will happen in the East End.

Just as I was beginning to think I was heading into melodrama overdrive, I heard that Galloway had been told he was going to be hanged for being a "false prophet" by an Islamic fundamentalist group who believe democracy is "evil".

Suddenly Galloway was talking about his "respect" for Oona King, and King reciprocated by saying that "although George and I disagree about many things, we do not want to be violent towards each other." Incredibly, much of the audience at the hustings booed this sentiment; I hope they just misheard.

So what is happening in the East End? I know a few members of the Hizb al-Tahrir group who have been accused of threatening Galloway, although the group fervently denies it. They often man a stall just outside my local McDonald's and sometimes, when I am very bored, I pick a row with them. (Perhaps I should stop doing that now). They are intelligent and furious young conservatives, driven by hatred of Western liberalism in all its forms, and absolutely convinced they are being viciously persecuted by the "infidel" state. It is very hard to engage them in a political dialogue that makes sense - you talk tax credits and they talk Caliphate, you talk a higher minimum wage and they talk about Mohammed's third wife.

But I am programmed as a leftie to try to find the root causes of their anger. I search for it in every conversation, but these aren't displaced Palestinians or Chechens; they are fairly wealthy, fairly well-educated young men (never women, of course) who have grown up in free countries. I cannot find a root cause for their beliefs; they seem to be simply intoxicated by a superstitious, reactionary ideology. You may as well ask about the root cause of the Cambridge spies' conversion to Soviet Communism.

This week, Galloway had the look of a man who has been romancing a beast, only to find the beast has raced beyond his control. For several years now, he has been grovelling at the feet of the most hardline Muslim groups in Britain. Look at the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), whose chief spokesman, Dr Azam Tamimi, says that Arab women "ask for" wife-beating, and believes thieves should be punished by cutting off their hands.

After years of wooing them and adopting their ultra-conservative position on abortion, euthanasia and more, Galloway has coaxed the MAB to urge its supporters to give him "maximum support." He has even adopted the mullahs' line on drugs, attacking King for her "soft" views on cannabis and calling for a "much tougher" war, no matter how many Muslim lives it takes.

Galloway clearly believed this ideology could be used for his political ends. Perhaps now he will see it for what it is: an authentically totalitarian movement capable of extreme violence against democratic politicians.

But would even this realisation stop Galloway stoking and supporting it? The other extraordinary aspect to the fight in Bethnal Green and Bow is that Galloway seems to have given up pretending he was sincerely opposed to Saddam. After describing Saddam's programmes of genocide as "a civil war with massive violence on both sides", Galloway has now called for Saddam's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, to be released without charge. Not to an international court; just released. "An eminent diplomatic and intellectual person" held "without any justification," was how Galloway described the man he spent a very merry Christmas with in 1999.

Aziz could have defected at any time. Instead, he stayed as one of the leaders of a fascist state. The vast majority of people who opposed the war had no sympathy with Baathism, and I have never met a pro-Saddam Muslim; but for anybody with eyes to see, Galloway's beliefs are now plain. I can understand why many decent people cannot vote for King because she supported the war, even though I don't agree -indeed I am campaigning for her. But why vote for an alternative who seems to be an apologist for even more Iraqis deaths?

I asked Galloway how many Muslims had been murdered by his friend Aziz. The correct answer: even more than have been slaughtered by Ariel Sharon, or by Israel in 38 years of occupying Gaza and the West Bank. Galloway said, "Why don't you go and take some more drugs, you druggie?"

This is part of a pattern. Galloway consistently sides with unelected, unrepresentative Muslim leaders at the expense of the majority of Muslim people. When he talks about "siding with Muslims", I am always tempted to ask: which Muslims? Female Muslims, chafing under their veils and reeling from the fists of too many of their men? Democratic Muslims, braving suicide-bombers to vote all over Iraq? Gay Muslims, living in terror and locked in mock-heterosexual marriage? Muslim trade unionists in Iraq, dismissed by Galloway as "quislings"? Tariq Aziz, or his victims?

In a column on Wednesday, I talked about how excruciatingly boring this election campaign has been. After hours watching two candidates who might be facing death, I'm almost tempted to swallow the valium of Blair vs Howard. Anything - even comatose boredom - is better than a Theo van Gogh on the streets of the East End.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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