Exclusive: George Galloway's conversion to Islam

Jemima Khan, in an interview with the Bradford MP, reveals the background to his Muslim conversion.

In a wide-ranging interview in this week's issue of the New Statesman, George Galloway MP talks about his spectacular by-election victory, Ed Miliband's fortunes, Middle East dictators and mass unemployment. Interviewer Jemima Khan also exclusively reveals the background to Galloway’s conversion to Islam:

George Galloway, MP for Bradford West, is a Muslim. He converted more than ten years ago in a ceremony at a hotel in Kilburn, north-west London, attended by members of the Muslim Association of Great Britain. Those close to him know this. The rest of the world, including his Muslim constituents, does not.  

Over a halal, alcohol-free lunch at a cafe on Bradford’s main high street, Khan tells Galloway: “I know someone who attended your shahadah [the Muslim conversion ceremony].”  

He stares at me across the table, penetrating blue eyes squinted, pausing for the first time in an hour. His special adviser, a glossy-haired Asian Pakistani called Ayesha, looks into her daal while his new bride, Gayatri Pertiwi – a Dutch-born Muslim of Indonesian descent 30 years his junior, seated beside him throughout the interview – smiles at me. 

George and Gayatri performed the nikah, the Muslim marriage ceremony, four weeks ago at the Royal Theatre in Amsterdam, the day after his sensational and unexpected victory in Bradford. This means, presumably, that they are unmarried under British law. Galloway has had two previous Muslim marriages (and this marriage to Gayatri is his fourth marriage in total). However, a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim man under Islamic law – although the other way round is allowed.

Khan and Galloway were scheduled to meet at the local mosque for juma (Friday) prayers, “where Galloway usually meets the community each week, but the plan was cancelled when it transpired that I was coming with a photographer”. Although Galloway denies it was only the Muslim vote that won him the Bradford seat, Khan writes:

Galloway may have successfully out-Muslimed Labour’s Muslim British-Pakistani candidate, Imran Hussain, during the election campaign, with his speeches full of “inshallahs”, his invocations of the Quran – “the people who invaded and destroyed Iraq . . . will burn in the hell-fires of Hell” – and his smattering of Arabic words: “We stand for justice and haq [truth].” Pamphlets were distributed declaring: “God knows who is a Muslim and he knows who is not. Instinctively, so do you . . . I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have.” (Galloway has denied he was responsible for these.)

In the media, Galloway is often referred to as a Catholic. However, as Khan finds, the Muslim constituents of Bradford knew otherwise:

There must have been some white constituents in Bradford, who, although natural Labour supporters, preferred to vote for the white Catholic candidate rather than the brown Muslim one representing Labour. Meanwhile, his Muslim constituents delighted in the hints – “a Muslim is somebody who is not afraid of earthly power but who fears only the Judgement Day. I’m ready for that, I’m working for that and it’s the only thing I fear.” Many favoured a possible or a potential Muslim over a “lapsed” one, such as Labour’s Hussain, who, Galloway claimed in his campaign, was “never out of the pub”.

Read the full NS Profile in this week's issue of the magazine, out today.

Update, 14.30

George Galloway has released a statement about the interview. The New Statesman responds:

“It is notable that Galloway does not deny being a Muslim convert – and he did not deny it when it was put to him at the time of the interview, which is on tape. Contrary to his press release, nor did he deny that the ceremony took place when it was put to him during the interview. This is also on tape. Furthermore, he failed to clarify how, by his own admission,  he had a 'nikah' (a Muslim marriage ceremony), despite the fact that a non-Muslim man cannot marry a Muslim woman under Islamic law. As for calling his 'secretary' his 'special adviser', this is how she asked to be described in an email to Jemima Khan." 

Combative, hyperbolic, confident: George Galloway has lunch with Jemima Khan

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage