March Issue 2013

By | Interview | Published 7 years ago

George Galloway, Respect Party MP, master orator, staunch left-winger and zealous anti-war protestor spoke with his hallmark enthusiasm and humour as keynote speaker at the Karachi Literature Festival this year. Writers, poets and sensitive liberals were moved, thick-skinned bureaucrats squirmed and the public applauded his words.

Shooting from the hip and shooting from the lip, George Galloway brought The Real Deal to Pakistan. (Sorry Press TV Iran, for borrowing Galloway’s weekly news programme’s tagline). At home in the U.K, Galloway is a fiery critic of the British establishment; in Karachi he remarked, “The sun will not set on the British Empire,” adding humorously that, “In Scotland,” where he comes from, “they say it won’t set because God would not trust the British in the dark.” Quips aside, Galloway takes up highly-loaded issues; his campaign for a free Palestine, Yasser Arafat and the PLO goes back decades. Since 2003, at the outset of the anti-war movement, Galloway condemned both George W. Bush and Tony Blair, whom he labeled as Bush’s British cohort. The duo, he says, chose war and sold the idea to gullible western populations on a litany of lies. He believes they were aided by a complicit right-wing media, with Rupert Murdoch leading the charge, revealed through the diaries of Blair’s former media strategist Alastair Campbell.

Galloway also speaks for a large part of the Arab world which, he believes, still does not enjoy true sovereignty and freedom from external interference. His recent derision of Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the West’s skewed agenda, in the House of Commons in January this year, was cutting, “Will the prime minister elaborate for the House, the key differences between the hand-chopping, throat cutting jihadists fighting the dictatorship in Mali, that we are now helping to kill, and the equally blood-thirsty jihadists that we are giving money, material, political and diplomatic support to in Syria. Has the prime minister read Frankenstein and did he read it to the end?” he asked. To which Cameron replied, “Wherever there is a brutal, Arab dictator in the world, he’ll have the support of the honourable gentleman,” referring to Galloway.

Getting an interview with Galloway was a challenge but with a little help from a friend in the BBC, I was at the Avari Hotel at 2:00 in the afternoon, just as the KLF took a breather for lunch. Known as Gorgeous George for his penchant for expensive tailoring, he was dapper in a dark jacket with a Nehru collar and slim-fit dark jeans, and we chatted informally in a private boardroom arranged for by the hotel’s general manager.

The conversation veered from his being part of Britain’s political Left, his views on Britain which he refers to as a state of collusion, the sanctions against Iran, the cultural conflict of Islam with the West and how he traded punches with columnist Christopher Hitchens about this in 2005, among other topics.

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This year in Karachi, he ruffled many feathers when he spoke of his fidelity to the Bhuttos. “Why would you support a feudal party,” asked someone in the audience, “Don’t you think democracy has a bad name in Pakistan because of the Pakistan People’s Party?” But Galloway was clear about his friendship with the Bhutto dynasty, his belief in the cause of democracy in Pakistan and the reasons for it.

Galloway is no stranger to controversy and often gets stuck on a sticky wicket — and this time it was in Pakistan. In April last year, in an interview in The New Statesman with Jemima Khan, just after his by-election victory in Bradford West, Galloway issued a denial and criticised Khan when she claimed that he had converted to Islam. This year in Karachi, he ruffled many feathers when he spoke of his fidelity to the Bhuttos. “Why would you support a feudal party,” asked someone in the audience, ‘Don’t you think democracy has a bad name in Pakistan because of the Pakistan People’s Party?” But Galloway was clear about his friendship with the Bhutto dynasty, his belief in the cause of democracy in Pakistan and the reasons for it. He told Pakistanis of his close association with Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan and admitted to assisting with the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), under the guise of a development official from the UK. “I was very proud to have played a small part in the movement to restore democracy in Pakistan,” he said while we sat at the Avari Hotel. “Since I had started a campaign in Britain to stop the execution of her father, I worked closely with Benazir and received her at the airport in London in 1983 when she was exiled. From then on we became firm friends for the rest of our lives. I had many spectacular political arguments with Benazir but her space for manoeuvre was very limited, as it is for every Pakistani leader,” he said. “How do I define my relationship with the Bhuttos?” he replied to my question, “Well, all I can say is blood is thicker than water.”

While Galloway is averse to a criticism of the Bhutto family, his censure of Pakistan’s democratic reality is selective and, to some, reeks of hypocrisy. At home in the U.K., his criticism is hard-hitting: “The economic and social basis of the British state as it stands is untenable — our economy is on the floor and one after another our institutions are being unmasked as criminal enterprises in many cases, the banks were criminal enterprises, the media was a criminal enterprise, there are now some 60 journalists, mainly from Mr Rupert Murdoch’s empire, but not exclusively, including the senior most executives who are under arrest and on bail and their trials are imminent.”

Galloway is now on a roll… “Our banks, our media, and our police, recently unmasked in the Hillsborough scandal when dozens of soccer fans were crushed to death due to overcrowding in a South Yorkshire stadium in 1989. The latest report reveals a major police cover-up — as having falsified statements and so on — on an industrial scale,” he says. “Similarly,” he continues, “the parliament itself is filled with expenses, frauds, people who have stolen hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public. In some cases, they went to prison, but not nearly enough of them. And many of them are still sitting there in parliament. One after the other, our institutions are being shown up to being really nothing like what we imagined them to be. And I think the British people deserve better than that and I’m determined to press the case for that.”

Surprisingly, when asked what he thought of Pakistan’s present democratic setup being plagued with corruption and falsehood, Galloway diplomatically sidelined the question by assigning the responsibility to Pakistanis to tackle their internal problems themselves. However, he had more to say about the country’s military and foreign policy: “As long as the level of indebtedness of the country remains as it is, so long as the military remains in this overbearing position, the scope for manoeuvre is limited. A good example is the Iranian pipeline. The Americans, apparently, have made it clear that Pakistan must not go for it even though it is in the region’s interest and Pakistan’s interest. Maybe there are unspoken or maybe even spoken threats (who knows) that the separatist movements in Balochistan will be stimulated by the US and disaster brought forward if Pakistan does not accept American orders on this pipeline. These are the kinds of fruits that are the result of this weird and unnatural relationship,” he warned.

Galloway, of course, is the dissenter par excellence and this question was just waiting to be asked — his thoughts on an independent media and the culture of dissent. Galloway responded in detail about the parameters within which dissent works in the first world and in a fledgling democracy like Pakistan. “I’m not sure if I have the perfect answer to it, except to say that it is different,” he said. Where democracy, as far as it goes — and it is not a perfect democracy in Britain by any means — is very well-established and beyond question and there is no army waiting to take power, and no civil war bubbling away, sometimes boiling away — it is different to be a dissenter in such a state and in this state where the above conditions prevail. I guess, though I haven’t really thought about the answer to your question before, that there are more limitations on dissent in a country like this. One cannot, for example, be sanguine about those who wish to break a country up, those who wish to turn one against the other — for example, if one was a Sunni fanatic in Pakistan today, denouncing the Shia minority in such terms that it would be likely to provoke further attacks on them, I don’t think that level of dissent is permissible, certainly not responsible. Everywhere there are limitations,” he said. “There are much fewer limitations in a country like mine where none of these problems exist, at least not in the same form, not in the same deadly, fatal form.”

Galloway’s final analysis was weighty and thought-provoking: “The break-up of the United Kingdom, for example, which I am against in any case, but were it to happen it wouldn’t be disaster. But the break-up of Pakistan might be disaster, a regional disaster. There are limitations on dissent than in the latter case. What those limitations are is a matter for you to work out, and there will always be people pushing at the boundaries, and that’s the normal human condition. I am not, of course, pretending that democracy in Pakistan is here to stay or the dangers of military intervention — or secession, break-up, sectarian violence — are possible and not impossible, but neither are they inevitable, therefore it is quite a tight-rope to walk.”

Galloway would love to see the Bush and Blair — or what he calls the BBC (Bush and Blair Corporation) — at The Hague. He would also like to see Julian Assange freed. His wish-list is straightforward: “The British state has to be accountable for the great crime that it committed, and was central to committing in Iraq, not just Mr Blair but many other leading personalities some of whom continue to sit in parliament, who exercise power in Britain, not just in the political sphere but in the civil service, in the foreign office, in the defence ministry, in the security services — not just because people should be punished for a crime of this size, but because, I believe, the whole Iraq business has dealt a potentially fatal blow to the credibility of the political system in the country, which has led to millions becoming disaffected and alienated from it. And that’s dangerous. Because, if people can do such a thing and prosper, then why shouldn’t others in the future do the same? If Mr Blair can commit all these crimes and go on to become a multi, multi millionaire than why isn’t there a temptation for other leaders to do the same in the future,” he said.
“But, my critique of the British state is not confined to Iraq by any means, not even on foreign policy; there are many other foreign policy issues, Palestine for example, where the British role has been so perfidious that reparation and accountability is inevitable, as a demand,” he concluded.

Later that evening, post-interview, in his closing speech at the KLF, he continued to denounce the double-standards of the West and had Pakistanis sitting up in their chairs. “Drain that swamp,” he said, when he asked them to imagine that the act of mass murder on 9/11 emerged from a swamp of injustice in Palestine and the Muslim world.

His views evoked shared emotion across the garden of the Beach Luxury Hotel that evening when he openly condemned the West to stop supporting the crimes of Israel against the Palestinian people, and demanded that they stop invading and occupying Muslim countries, and stop propping tin-pot dictators and tyrants.
The way to people’s hearts and minds is not to fire hellcat missiles, he said to a very responsive crowd. “Reduce enmity and replace it with amity,” he concluded.

If wishes were horses, Mr Galloway…

The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline