From this week's Craccum, a piece I wrote about George Galloway's speech at Auckland University:
Recently, I was reading about the bakers of Baghdad. For centuries, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq had lived together peacefully. The bakers were usually Shiites, even in predominately Sunni districts. But in 2005 the bakers became targets. One by one, bakeries closed as their staff were murdered. In Iraq, where sectarian conflict was unknown, it seemed unthinkable, but a civil war was beginning.
George Galloway did not mention the bakers when he spoke about Islam at the University. He didn't speak of any of the conflicts or differences within Islam. Listening to him, you might think that Islam is a united and universal religion, with a singular purpose and a common enemy, the West. Which is an odd state of affairs, considering that he came to New Zealand to condemn those who believe that Islam is united in enmity of the West, the fundamentalists of the Christian Right.
Galloway is the sole Member of Parliament for the Respect Party, which he founded after he was expelled from the Scottish Labour Party for his criticisms of the Labour Government in Britain and its support for the occupation of Iraq. In 2005, he won the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow in London, which has a large Muslim population, defeating the sitting Labour MP. He is no stranger, as they say, to controversy. Shortly before visiting New Zealand, Galloway was suspended from the House of Commons because of his use of Parliamentary resources to support his charity, the Mariam Appeal.
He is no stranger to Iraq, either. His critics say he supported Saddam Hussein, although he claims he was misquoted. The Mariam Appeal has been under investigation by both the British Parliament and the US Senate over allegations that it was funded by Hussein through the UN Oil for Food Programme, as a propaganda tool to have sanctions against Iraq lifted. Galloway won a libel action against the Daily Telegraph in Britain about similar allegations made by the newspaper.
However, Galloway came to New Zealand not to escape his critics but to bury them. He was invited here by the Residents Action Movement to talk about Islamophobia. RAM, a left wing coalition which holds a single seat on the Auckland Regional Council, has not previously involved itself in the Clash of Civilisations; its main policies are advocating free public transport and reducing rates for home owners. RAM has recently discovered that New Zealand is in danger of being contaminated by Islamophobia which, like the Possum and the Gum Leaf Skeletoniser Moth, comes from Australia.
The main agent of the spread of Islamophobia is a group of fundamentalist Christians who had organised their own tour, of two Australian Christians. Stuart Robinson, senior Pastor of Crossway Baptist Church in Melbourne, wrote Mosques and Miracles, a book which argues that Islam is trying to take over the world. Daniel Shayesteh is a former radical Muslim who converted to Christianity and is now Director of an organisation called Exodus from Darkness. Both are keen to convert Muslims to the own version of Christianity, before it is too late. They also want to warn Christians about the true intentions of Muslims.
Although they have some celebrity and notoriety at home, Pastor Robinson and Mr Shayesteh have yet to make much of an impact in New Zealand. They spoke at a couple of meetings in Auckland and Wellington. RAM believes they are spreading a message of hatred towards Muslims, which will destroy the social fabric of this country if it is not nipped in the bud. RAM would have us believe that their bringing Mr George Galloway MP to New Zealand was our last best hope of stopping this sort of thing before it gets out of hand. In the rest of the West, Islamophobia is rife, so we must heed his warnings.
Perhaps I am a little cynical about these matters but I could not help thinking, as I listened to the support acts who preceded Mr Galloway's speech, that this is all a little hysterical. After all, nobody really listens to the Christian fundamentalists who, not so long ago, were telling us that Civil Unions would lead to the collapse of everything we apparently hold dear, as would banning the smacking of children and legalising prostitution. The threat of Islam is the latest of their preoccupations which, like the threat of Homosexualism and the threat of Evolution, are imported wholesale from the United States of Anxiety. They always have something to be scared about. In this respect, the fundies of the religious Right are not so different from the fundies of the political Left. Right now, Islamophobia is the Left's concern; tomorrow it will be something else (dates and venue to be announced).
But tomorrow's problems are another concern. On the night, Mr Galloway delivered what everybody expected of him, a rousing speech. He was given his just reward, a standing ovation by all present (except the small group of flinching cowards and sneering traitors of which I was part). His message was clear. Islamophobia is being propagated by the very forces that created the bloodbath of Iraq. It is the work of the West and it will not succeed.
In fact, he had little to say about New Zealand, other than warning us that we were particularly at risk because we lack a law which criminalises incitement to religious hatred. If we let it take hold here, we will face the horrors that now afflict Britain. Angry young Muslim men will be roused to anger when their sisters are mocked in the streets and when their mosques are vandalised by Islamophobes. These men will take out their justified resentments with acts of violence against innocent people, as they have done in Britain and elsewhere.
At this point in his rhetoric, I thought of the angry young Muslim men who had plotted, unsuccessfully, to blow up the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London. When they came to trial, their emails were presented as evidence for the prosecution. They spoke of killing "sluts" and "slags," whose deaths would be regretted by nobody. I thought also of the recent and almost successful plot to bomb the Tiger Tiger night club, on Ladies Night. Somehow, I think these angry young Muslim men were concerned with something more, something much more dark, than the mocking of their sisters.
I thought also of those bakers in Baghdad, particularly when Mr Galloway spoke about the "resistance" in Iraq. The differences between Shiite and Sunni were not part of his discourse. Acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims were attributable to the West, to the Islamophobia propagated by the Governments of Bush and Blair. The conflicts within Islam and the conflicts with the modern world where women are free to go to Ladies Night were not Mr Galloway's concern.
Every Muslim, he told us, carries the name "Palestine" in his heart. If the West does not solve the problem of Palestine, then the violence will continue. The West must solve other problems as well: the occupation of Muslim countries by outsiders and the repression of corrupt Muslim governments. These concerns of Mr Galloway, incidentally, are shared by Osama Bin Laden, whose struggle is as much with the ruling family in Saudi Arabia as they are with the Great Satan of America.
For Mr Galloway, as for Mr Bin Laden, Islam is a monolith. All Muslims are as one and Islam has a single enemy, the West. Mr Galloway described Mr Bin Laden as an "obscurantist," but it seems they share the same clear vision of Islam. Curiously enough, it is the same vision as that of Pastor Robinson and Mr Shayesteh, seen from the other side: an army of millions, united as one.
For Mr Galloway, his audience on that night were soldiers in another army: "an army of justice." For his sponsors in RAM, they may be another army still: an army of voters. RAM will go into the next local body elections on a platform which will include combating Islamophobia alongside its more local concerns.