Originally posted 22 May 2004.
The campaign for the 10 June 2004 Euro and local elections by the Respect coalition, set up by the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) in January, is descending into a shameful scramble to grab the 'Muslim vote'.
It is not an effort to win Muslim workers and youth over to socialist ideas while avoiding unnecessary offence to their religious beliefs. Rather the opposite: Respect is functioning as a means to convert the socialists who provide its active forces into advocates of Islamic communalism or Islamism.
In London, Respect is circulating a leaflet boosting its figurehead, George Galloway, as a "fighter for Muslims". It describes Respect as 'The Party for Muslims', and claims that "George Galloway has been recognised by the Muslim world for his 30 years of struggle for the people of Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan. Married to a Palestinian doctor, he has deep religious principles [and is] teetotal."
The leaflet appeals to Muslims to use 10 June as a referendum against Blair and New Labour on supposedly Muslim issues, naming Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Iraq.
Way down in the small print the leaflet mentions 'low-cost public housing' and so on, but its basic pitch is that Galloway and Respect speak for Muslims as Muslims. "Tony Blair wants to see George Galloway silenced. We, as Muslims, want to see him continue to speak out for us".
It is grotesquely hypocritical even in its own terms. Take Galloway's "struggle for the people of Pakistan", for example.
In the Mail on Sunday (17 October 1999), Galloway supported the military coup that installed the present government there. "In poor third world countries like Pakistan, politics is too important to be left to petty squabbling politicians... Only the armed forces can really be counted on to hold such a country together. General Musharraf seems an upright sort to me and he should be given a chance to put Pakistan's house in order. Democracy is a means, not an end in itself".
In the mid 1990s, Galloway ran a newspaper called East which was financed by previous Pakistani governments in order to promote their politics on Kashmir among British Asians. (See the article by Saeed Shah, a former journalist on East, in The Independent, 23 April 2003).
The leaflet does not mention Muslim Bosnia or Kosova, probably because the SWP does not want us to recall their refusal to support the Bosniacs' fight against Serbian imperialism and their effective backing for Milosevic in the Kosova war.
As well as being hypocritical, the leaflet's appeal is sectarian, divisive, and calculated to tie Muslim workers and youth to their imams and community notables rather than uniting them with other workers and youth, Hindu, Christian, or atheist.
It is no less reactionary than appealing to Catholics to vote as Catholics for a candidate claiming to "speak out for Catholics", or Protestants to vote as Protestants for "a fighter for Protestants".
In Birmingham, Respect has a pact with the People's Justice Party (PJP), a Kashmiri community group. The PJP backs Respect for the Euro-elections, and Respect backs the PJP for the local council elections.
A PJP leaflet tells voters that: "George Galloway MP, the only man to stand firm by the Muslim people against the war in Iraq... is urging all his supporters to vote for the PJP".
It goes on to set out the PJP's own stall. The main item, apart from Iraq, is the following denunciation of the Liberal Democrats.
"Another Lib Dem policy not in favour of the British Muslim community is the teaching of gay sex education to your children at a very young age. The Lib Dems are also in favour of equal rights for gays and lesbians. Do you want this?"
Respect supporters in Birmingham now claim that the leaflet has been 'withdrawn'. The PJP has announced no change of mind on lesbian and gay rights, and Respect has not publicly dissociated from its ally.
In Yorkshire and Humberside, the Respect list is headed by Anas Altikriti, former president of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). MAB is a British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest Islamic-fundamentalist movement in the Arab world.
On the anti-war march in September 2002, it distributed a freesheet, Inspire, expounding its allegiance to "implementation of Islam as a way of life, no longer to be sidelined as merely a 'religion' - a society governed by Allah's laws".
In such a society, it explained, it will be "punishable by death" or at least "as an act of mutiny and treason" for people brought up Muslim to renounce religion.
MAB has softened its public pitch since then, but Altikriti is candid that he is no sort of socialist.
"I wouldn't describe myself as a socialist... What we ought to establish - and this is something I take from being a Muslim - is that there will always be rich and poor...
"In Islam we have what is called zakat, or alms, and so the more you have in terms of wealth, the more you are liable to pay towards charitable and community projects. That way, the gap between rich and poor will remain proportionate, acceptable and reasonable." (interview with Weekly Worker, 29 April 2004).
Altikriti is cautious about secularism and sexual liberty. "As Muslims we recognise the fact that we live in a secular society, where absolute freedoms are the norm... including sexual liberty. I as an individual may have reservations about that, but I don't hold this against anyone."
"I would disagree to some extent that it is a must to separate religion from our school system. It is important to have a spiritual or religious side to education."
When asked to summarise his politics briefly in an interview with the Independent on Sunday (5 April), Galloway replied: "Socialist. Although I'm not as left wing as you think... I'm strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception, and therefore unborn babies have rights. I think abortion is immoral". He claimed to have unshakable 'faith in God'.
The sudden switch from Gorgeous George to Godly Galloway elicited a press release from MAB:
"These comments [on abortion], as well as his statements on faith and God in the same interview, will surely be welcomed by British Muslims who see Respect as a real alternative."
MAB, however, is still being hard-headed. In recommendations for voting issued on 10 May, it strongly backs Ken Livingstone for London mayor against Respect's Lindsey German; backs the Greens' Caroline Lucas in the South-East euro-region; suggests case-by-case decisions on local council elections, with the general guidance that "the Liberal Democrats' records are considered far better than Labour or the Conservatives'; and backs Respect only in four regions, London (Galloway), Yorkshire and Humber (Altikriti), North East (Muslim convert Yvonne Ridley), and West Midlands.
The one bit of Respect's scramble for the 'Muslim vote' which seems left-wing is its call for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The practical meaning of this call, however, is support for the various Islamist militias fighting the Americans as 'national liberation forces'.
In other words, it is an attempt to gloss over Galloway's long record as a friend of the Ba'thist regime - which murderously repressed Muslims of all shades - by presenting him now as the champion of the Islamist militias in which some old Ba'thists are finding a place.
Here and there in Respect leaflets, of course, there are still words about public services or an 'equitable education system'. A London Respect leaflet makes its prime slogan a £1 flat fare on the Tube.
None of that, however, even rises as high as serious reformism. It is more like ordinary bourgeois social demagogy, a politics which touts for support on the basis of promising a ragbag of sops and baubles without offering any account of who will pay and how they can be made to pay.
And there's not much in it that the Lib-Dems cannot do better and more credibly, at least where they are in opposition.
What gives the Respect campaign any edge it possesses is its presentation of George Galloway as the supposed anti-war hero, "fighter for Muslims", and nemesis of Tony Blair. The ballot papers will read 'Respect - The Unity Coalition (George Galloway)'.
Thus also the claim by Respect that it offers the means to make 10 June 'a referendum on Blair and New Labour". A referendum? After polling day, Respect will tot up the Tory and Lib-Dem and Green votes, add in its own few, and declare victory because the total exceeds Labour's?
In the past we on Solidarity have sometimes refused to support election campaigns run by other socialists because we thought them tactically misjudged or irreparably addled by sectarian quirks. We never doubted or questioned that those campaigns were broadly left-wing and socialist.
Respect is a first. It is nonsense, and not left-wing nonsense, either. Whether Respect will manage to dupe any number of Muslims into voting for it, I don't know. What it has certainly done is dupe a number of socialists into running an election campaign which is downright right-wing in political content.
Respect fails to answer at LSE
By Michael Wood
On Tuesday 4 May LSE Socialist Worker Student Society hosted a session of questions and answers about the Respect coalition, with Lindsey German and Omar Waraich speaking.
Both speakers emphasised their opposition to the war and the Blair government, portraying the June elections as a referendum on these issues, and portraying Respect as the only viable option for a 'no' vote.
Very few questions were actually taken as the meeting was short and the speakers were allowed to respond after each question. But a few people did get the chance to challenge the platform.
Members of the AWL asked the speakers whether campaigning to elect people like George Galloway and Anas Altikriti, with whom they professed to disagree on the issues of abortion and revolution respectively, was the best we could offer the anti-war movement.
Omar Waraich declared that the anti-war movement was 'cyclical' and that therefore whilst it may have been the biggest mass movement in history we should not expect that to translate into electoral success.
The only other critical question sadly came towards the end and therefore only sparked brief debate. Did the speakers not feel that there might be a contradiction in having fundamentalists and secularists in the same organisation? This prompted the reply from Lindsey German that there were of course contradictions in any organisation 'of this kind'. With answers like those, who needs questions?