How to Build a Successful Progressive Alliance
At the Dirksen Senate Office Building this Tuesday, a pack of reporters followed George Galloway, Respect Coalition Minister of Parliament for Bethnal Green, London, before and after his testimony at the Government Committee on Investigations.
He had offered to go before the committee to clear his name. His electrifying testimony and subsequent cross-examination – by senators Coleman and Levin as well as by a gathering of broadcast reporters from the U.S. and Europe – has been aptly described by many progressive reporters.
Sadly, few of the reporters gathered that day asked Galloway about his newsworthy victory as a Respect candidate in the seat of Bethnal Green, a seat of immigrants and working class people in east London. What’s more, the progressive reports of Tuesday’s hearing have largely focused on his refutation of the charges and rhetorical prowess, not his historic success as a Respect candidate.
We caught up with Galloway and his team at Union Station, in a restaurant on a circular platform towering above the busy station. As he puffed a cigar, we asked him about the victory of Respect and its applicability to the problems faced by American activists.
* * *
Esther Sassaman: The questions I’m going to ask u are basically a totally different ball of wax from what others have asked today. These are organizing questions, because you just won the holy grail recently in Bethnal Green. We need help from you guys.
George Galloway: Oh yeah, definitely.
ES : Respect is an innovative alliance between Muslim and socialist forces. Why was it instituted and why was it successful, especially in Bethnal Green?
GG: Well, I have been quite central to the development so I guess I’m well placed as anyone to comment on it. I have long felt the things that divide us, the left and the Muslim community, were much less important than the things which united us. That’s not to say the things are not important, just that they’re much less important than the things that divided us. I have felt that one of the reasons why in places like France the Muslims were impotent and weak, and the left was impotent and weak, was because no fusion existed between them. Not even a fringe seemed to link them – over time, really dating back to the role of religion in the time of the French Revolution. Well, the role of religion has changed since the French Revolution. And nowadays most religious people are on the same side as most progressive people on these really core issues of war, peace and exploitation and the domination one by another, Zionism, the war, and so on.
So I’ve long felt that this alliance could be built — in the Stop the War movement, in which I was one of the leaders, which was really a precursor of Respect, we achieved that. We had people under the same roof,people marching in the same demonstrations. We had Trotskyists, Stalinists, social democrats, liberals, Jews, Muslims, Christians, people of all kinds, who united around the basic demands of our movement, which were: No war on Iraq, freedom for Palestine.
And out of that experience was born Respect. And everyone thought that it would be an unholy alliance, But actually it has worked incredibly well. We not only won a seat, coming from nowhere, one of the most historic results in British political history, but we came second in three others, and we were third in another, and fourth in four seats. Four of the ten best results of the night were scored by us.
All over east London, and in the center of Birmingham, where the poor people live, where the immigrant people live, where students live, we showed that we are the real challengers of New Labour, except where we beat them. And that alliance is holding fast.
And I commend it to other countries. You can’t transfer one political model all around the world – heaven knows the left’s made mistakes along that line – long before us. But basic truth, seeking unity of those forces that are against war, imperialism, occupation and globalization must be there. And if that means that you have your view on abortion and I have mine, then I think that’s a price worth paying.
ES: That moves me onto the next question – which is, you know, as an American, a little bit of a selfish question, but very useful to us – You already said that such an alliance can prosper in the US. My question is – how? One of the main problems we have here as progressive Muslim and non-Muslim activists in the US is we have trouble mobilizing the larger Muslim community due to an atmosphere of fear after September 11th. How – how do we overcome that?
GG: Well, ithats understandable, and at the beginning you will only be able to mobilize the most courageous and the best established. There’s a clear difference between someone who – whose "jacket is here on a shaky nail" as we say, and someone who was born here, of Muslim extraction. That person is likely to be more courageous in facing up to the prevailing atmosphere – than someone who has just arrived or thinks that that they might be just a transient here. But of course the local population is, more and more, the second generation population. And that’s where I’d start. I’d start with the most politically advanced of the older generation and I’d start targeting the younger generation. And say to them: politics can change things. Democracy can change things. The extremists …. the Salafids, they argue that voting is haraam, that elections are haraam, that working with what they call the kufr, the unbelievers, is haraam. We say, no, it’s vital. And, it works. And Bethnal Green is a good example of it.
ES: These questions to follow are more about the political culture problems we have here in the US.
Tom Nagy: The problem we have here in the us is that the right wing – on media, communications skills, and finances – is so far ahead of the progressives. Like, Esther and I were only two of the small number of progressive people here to cover the hearing.
ES: And the only two [progressives] from the United States, I believe.
TN: Do you have any suggestions for us? It’s a problem throughout the United States.
ES: How do we catch up?
TN: They’ve got a thirty year advantage, all the institutions.
ES: The think tanks, the newspapers…
GG: But, the Muslim community here is a very substantial one, and it’s very prosperous. And it must be fought for with assiduous work. If I can help in any way I’ll try to, — to tap the kinds of fund raising that would allow you to get started with a project. I’ve been in three taxi cabs since I’ve been here. All of them were driven by Muslims. All of them recognized me immediately. And all of them were huge supporters of everything I stand for. Eh, extraordinary! And really encouraging. Two Pakistanis and one Afghan. And that’s before you even touch the Arab-American community, which is likely to be better-established and even more prosperous. So I think that it’s important that this get started. Maybe I’ll come and do something, some speaking around the United States.
TN: That would be great.
ES: On a tangent I do know these folks in Cleveland that would be overjoyed to host and hear you, I’ll get contact info to your folks.
GG: Thank you
ES: I’m going to ask the epistemology question – epistemology, for the people who may not know that fifty cent word that are reading this, is the science of knowing – what kind of theory of knowledge is out there. And it’s my personal belief that the Republican Party and to a larger and larger extent, the Democratic Party – is inventing its own epistemology. Basically, instead of having a rigorous investigation of facts, for example at your hearing today, they just make an assertion. And because they say it in this vertically integrated media machine, it’s true! And the problem is, if that epistemology spreads across the United States, then we have a huge disadvantage because even the facts won’t save us if they can invent their own facts, How do we fight that?
GG: Well that’s a brilliantly formed question.
ES: Thank you.
GG: I have no easy answer to it. Beyond – nobody ever said it would be easy. We are, in our two countries, fighting against an imperialist monster…that thinks nothing of massacring large numbers of people. And this is Jack Londons Iron Heel. And it may be that in my lifetime, Tom’s lifetime, I hope not in yours – that we do not break through. We may move forward. We may merely stop them from pushing us back as far as they might have done if we weren’t here. But we have a duty to try. What else are we here for, but to fight for the truth and fight for justice? In the end, if we’re talking about epistemology, all we’re asking for is justice! Justice – We believe in a society of justice in the world. Justice for the Palestinians and justice for everybody. That’s all we’re asking for. Now, there are a number of constituencies who are predisposed, if stripped of anything that gets in the way, predisposed to the idea of justice. And religious people, many religious people, are amongst those. I think of the Cardinal Archbishop of Detroit. who came to Baghdad a couple of times…. The Roman Catholic Church – I speak as a Catholic – the Roman Catholic Church, even in right wing countries like this, is seeded closely with ideals of justice. Black churches, black Christians, must be open to the ideals of justice.
ES: Yeah I sing in a Baptist gospel choir.
GG: All right, you’ll know that then. And the Muslim community, however many millions it is in America, is definitely predisposed towards justice – both because Islam expounds the idea of justice, in a very powerful way, more powerful actually than the other religions, and because most of the people suffering injustice in the world on the international level are Muslims. You can speak to Kashmiris about injustice very easily. You can speak to Arab-Americans about injustice very easily.
ES: But there’s often been a problem spreading that outside of their national interests. How do you purport to overcome that? That’s something definitely that we’ve got to work on here.
GG: Yeah. I think that the task is to demonstrate that this injustice is a system. It’s not an accident, it’s a system. And the system requires that injustice. Injustice is its currency. People ask me, in mosques and so on, why are Muslims hated so much by the powerful governments? And I say, ‘You don’t have to be a Muslim to be hated.’ Cuba is hated. Second, they [the US] quite like the Saudi royal family, and they pray five times a day. What they hate is the command in Islam that the believer must hate injustice and must struggle against it and must refuse tyranny. And, that these people are the tyrants. And their currency is injustice. Inevitably, that puts them on a collision course with Islam – with genuine believers in Islam. So, it is possible to generalize from the specific. There are some specifics that are more specific than others. For example, an Egyptian is equally outraged about what happens in Palestine as a Palestinian. A Kashmiri might not be so quickly and totally able to pass their feelings about one to another. But it’s definitely not beyond us to try and to make progress.
ES: One example of that would be in Iran, which is a really good example of non-Arabs, Persians in this case, having a strong solidarity with Palestine and the people of Palestine.
GG: There are no Shi’ites in Palestine.
GG: None at all.
GG: But the people of Iran are deeply committed to the Palestinian cause.
ES: So that’s a good sign.
GG: Yeah, after the revolution they took over the Israeli embassy and gave it to the PLO! Alhamdulilah! And, they called the street in which the British Embassy was in Bobby Sands Boulevard!
TN: Wow, that’s real solidarity.
ES: And that sort of thing really has a cultural currency, and these symbolic gestures really spread all over the world.
GG: Sure they do.
ES: And that’s something that we on the left really need to catch up on. The right is really dominating the field.
GG: I think – talking as a leftist, to leftists – let me say, the first hang up we have to get over is that somehow religion is a reactionary thing.
ES: Hear, hear.
GG: Whether you believe in God or not, it can hardly be a bad thing that people want to live their lives by a value system of peace, which is what in the end religion is. Religions say, don’t harm other people. Treat people as you would wish to be treated. Don’t steal. Don’t kill people. And so on and so on. Well there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you don’t believe in God there’s nothing wrong with that. And a person who sincerely believes that sort of thing is the kind of person that can be won to a broader progressive agenda.
Esther Sassaman is a freelance journalist and Palestine solidarity activist. Tom Nagy is a anti-sanctions and anti-imperialist activist and writer. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org