The war for Muslim minds – in east London

Dominic Hilton
3 May 2005

Britain’s professional opinion-formers are agreed: the 2005 general election has been a damp squib of a contest.

Voters aren’t interested. The major issues are not in play. The political parties have stage-managed the whole affair into mind-numbing oblivion.

But I found the exception to the rule: the east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow.

In Bethnal Green & Bow you can’t escape election fever. Within five minutes of my arrival three cars had swooped by with megaphones urging voters to the polls. A group of Asian youths had stormed past, fists in the air, chanting political slogans. News was breaking in London’s Evening Standard of widespread ballot fraud in the constituency. I’d spotted about fifty political badges on as many lapels, trodden on several pieces of campaign literature (the streets were strewn), the immensely popular bus shelters were plastered with stickers that read:

“CAUTION: STAY MUSLIM, DON’T VOTE Oh Muslims, Beware! Voting for man-made law is an act of apostasy. Do not vote for any MP. Do not stand as an MP. Do not support any MP!”

Streetwise in Bethnal Green

Bethnal Green & Bow is the epitome of London’s hotchpotch mix of cultures, new lives, old lives, Dickensian history, modern messiness. Take a stroll from Victoria Park to the Royal London Hospital and you’ll see more pregnant white teens and burka-clad women than you can shake a stick at. Mosques and halal butchers share the streets with giant billboards advertising lapdancing clubs. One young Muslim man described the area to me as “a shithole, sandwiched between the City and Canary Wharf”.

The place is poor. Poor enough to be fashionable enough to attract cool white middle-class youths who are so into art they sport ironic haircuts and wear poor people’s clothes. It is also half Muslim. And it is this, more than anything, which has cranked up the election to fever pitch.

The local incumbent is Oona King, who entered parliament in 1997. Only the second black woman to sit in Britain’s House of Commons, she enjoys a seemingly comfortable 10,000 majority.

But in 2005, the race for King’s job is one of the tightest (and certainly most passionately fought) in British politics.

The big reason is the Iraq war. King voted for it. Somewhere in the region of 90% of her constituents opposed it. Cue George Galloway.

“Gorgeous” George Galloway, former Labour MP for the Scottish seat of Glasgow Kelvin, was expelled from the Labour Party after allegedly urging Iraqi insurgents to target coalition troops. In 1994 Galloway gushed over Saddam Hussein: “Sir, I salute your courage, strength and indefatigability.” In December 2004, Galloway won a libel action against the Daily Telegraph which had accused him of being in the pay of Saddam.

The perfect man to swoop to the rescue of Bethnal Green & Bow’s legions of disillusioned.

After feeling the boot of the Labour machine, Galloway founded a new political movement called “Respect”. Respect is superhard left – an extraordinary mix of the Socialist Workers Party (who organised the “Stop the War” campaign) and the more radical Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Association of Britain. When not campaigning for the release of Tariq Aziz, Iraqi foreign minister under Saddam, an “eminent diplomatic and intellectual person” and “political prisoner”, Galloway is the Respect candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow.

In what has been described by Oona King as a “poisonous atmosphere”, the contest has been marred by controversy and accusation. King has been pelted by eggs, had her car tyres slashed, and suffered abuse for having a Jewish mother. Before a violent fight broke out between Respect supporters and Islamic extremists, Galloway claims to have been taken hostage, accused of being “a false prophet” and threatened with hanging by the Islamic group Al-Ghurbaa.

When I caught up with him, Galloway was campaigning outside the prison-like metal fences of a local school, across the road from King’s offices. His campaign hands called him “Brother George” as he addressed schoolmums in Arabic. He was getting a good reception, including from an out-of-work Iraqi man. “How many votes have you got in your house?” Galloway asked him.

He watched me as I jotted. “I hope you are noting the white support.” The constituency is 40% Bangladeshi Muslim. By tradition, and increasingly in contrast to their white British fellow-citizens, Bangladeshi Muslims vote in elections in large numbers. If Galloway wins their support and picks up a few other scraps he’s back in Westminster.

I asked him about this. “Labour has set out to polarise the election along ethnic lines,” he said, turning the tables. “They’re campaigning mainly in white areas.” He described his constituency as a “rotten borough” controlled by the cynical Labour machine. It was hard to disagree with that, but Rob Mackinlay of the East London Advertiser gave me another story involving Galloway's election-related trip to Bangladesh (where Mackinlay had accompanied him) that cast a different light on the subject.

I had to laugh when Galloway said Bethnal Green was “much more pleasant” than Glasgow because in Glasgow there are all those “automatic sectarian issues”.

Ah, yes, I said, speaking of which, what on earth is all this about you being threatened with hanging? “Paper talk,” he huffed. “Look at me, I’m walking around unescorted.”

Galloway’s economic policies are best described as eccentric. Every business (British or otherwise) and moderately paid individual would be taxed into poverty. Next to America, “capitalist globalisation” is enemy number one (in the second paragraph of the Respect manifesto, we’re already onto “the neo-conservative’s oil-drenched agenda”). But on the cultural grab-issues of “the war”, “justice” and all that, Respect attracts support, and Galloway is a past-master at galvanising this.

He insists he is about more than just anti-war anti-Americanism. But his campaign flyer is pretty clear. A picture of Oona King + a picture of Tony Blair + a picture of George W Bush = a picture of a hooded torture victim of Abu Ghraib.

“Allah willing, all will go well on Thursday,” he said, followed by, “the word ‘religion’ has never crossed my lips.”

An election at fever pitch

As he sped off in his Mercedes, I tried to get something out of Oona King’s people, only to be told “we are a bit sensitive about journalists”. The press officer ushered me out the door, frowning. Perfectly New Labour of him.

Instead, I went to a Portuguese café and accidentally triggered an enormous argument. Labour councillor Khaled Reza Khan was explaining to me how the reports in the local Bangladeshi press accusing King of being anti-halal meat were false; he had a letter from Tony Blair to prove it. Muslims, he told me, are “emotionally driven”. “They can live with anything, but what effects them are emotional issues, like their religion. Therefore, Iraq becomes the only issue.” 100% of these emotional sorts, I was told, couldn’t tell me what an MP does.

A woman next to me of African descent piped in with the best defence of George Galloway I’ve ever heard, then proceeded to announce her plans to vote Tory because of her opposition to immigration. Some women in the next booth accused her of abusing Oona King’s mum two days before.

I escaped to the East London Mosque, where I was handed a booklet, “Voting in Islam”, offering guidelines to Islamic rules on voting and answers to questions like: “Is voting a harmful waste of Muslim resources bearing no benefits?”

Outside, I collared some Respect supporters who’d been involved in those infamous fights with Al-Ghurbaa. They couldn’t have been clearer: Labour, they insisted, is pushing a racist agenda. The extremist Islamic groups who demand Muslims don’t exercise their democratic rights are doing Labour’s dirty work, keeping turnout low.

It’s all one big conspiracy, they continued. If not, then why are all these extremists given police protection to promote their agenda on the streets, while innocents are locked in Guantánamo? Answer: because the Labour government is in cahoots with the extremists so as to show there’s a threat and pass its draconian anti-terror laws. It is Labour which is funding community programmes for extremists – look at all “the extremist language” used by Oona King, whom they twice voted for but who now accuses them of “anti-Semitism”. “Inside leaks” point to a “secret deal”, a “marriage of convenience”.

My head was spinning. Everyone blames everyone else for this poisonous atmosphere, and all of them have decent arguments. “The world is watching this election,” Mohammed told me. “And especially what happens here in Bethnal Green & Bow. Extremists are trying to eat the fabric of this society. But you know what? Most of them can’t even sacrifice their Nike trainers.”

How come? I asked Mohammed. “Muslims are more likely to be sentimental,” he explained.

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