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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.