In one of those famous dustups that defined the lives of New York intellectuals even better than their ideas could, Daniel Bell once remarked that what distinguished Irving Kristol and himself from their more radical Alcove One comrade Irving Howe was that Bell and Kristol had lived in Paris and London and so had witnessed totalitarianism up close. It was one thing to write an admiring biography of Trotsky or inveigh against the paranoid dragnet of McCarthyism from the tenured groves of CUNY; it was quite another to encounter actual Trots trying to infiltrate the British Labour Party or to parler with an intellectual establishment dominated by unrepentant Stalinists. If you wanted to learn exactly how the ideological enemy thought and argued in the twentieth-century but you didn’t want to wind up shot or in a camp, you could do worse than relocate to Western Europe.
For an American, depending on his perspective, this experience endures into the twenty-first and is either highly edifying or highly depressing. In London, where I’ve lived for the past two years, I’ve noted all the characteristics that define a world political and economic capital with enough eccentricities tossed in to make the city seem like an exotic outpost that belongs to several competitive empires. The British tabloid or “red top” press can seldom mention London unaccompanied by some derogatory suffix such as “grad” or “stan” to denote just how thoroughly these charter’d streets have been overrun by foreign feuds and factionalisms.
Communism may be dead, but mafia capitalism lives on in Russia and it has birthed an entire class of oligarchs, two of whom recently replayed their financial war with each other in a London courtroom. No doubt the legal system here is more impartial than the one back home, but one of litigants, former media mogul Boris Berezovsky, already had to beat an extradition order to avoid finding this out first hand. These requests to repatriate enemies of the Kremlin now flow freely from Moscow to London and where the requests are denied, an untraceable pistol fired in a darkened alleyway or an irradiated cup of tea tends to do the job equally well. Fortunately for Vladimir Putin, a cowed cross-partisan political establishment in Westminster can be relied on to raise only the mildest rhetorical fuss about assassinated dissidents on British soil though never to issue any sanctions or expel a Russian ambassador over it. No one wants to jolt bilateral relations at a time when British soccer teams and failing newspapers are being gobbled up by Eastern Bloc industrialists and ex-KGB officers who won’t publicly account for how they made their billions.
Exiled Islamists, meanwhile, have spent decades in London claiming to want to reconcile sharia and democracy while often getting paid handsomely to undermine the latter. After the 7/7 bombings, many Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e-Islami talk shops thinly disguised as community organizations received government subsidies after they promised to be more potent antidotes to jihadism than American drones could ever be, even as these same organizations apologized for jihadism or enlisted fellow travelers to apologize for their apologetics. After Mubarak was overthrown, one prominent lawyer for Egyptian Islamists gave the game away about what had been a pretty formidable in-gathering of talent. He spoke of the imminent return of “3,000 leading figures of the Jama’a al-Islamyia and Egyptian Islamic Jihad groups...They are coming back from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Kenya, Iran and London.” Only one in that litany is a city but that’s not the reason it doesn’t belong...
The red tops have had better fun with the acknowledged al-Qaida terrorist who does his shopping at Tesco. Osama bin Laden’s “ambassador in Europe,” Abu Qatada, now lives under a kind of loose form of house arrest in the north London neighborhood of Wembley while the government pays the rent on his flat. If you ran into Aymenn al-Zawahiri at Gristedes in Morningside Heights, you might wonder how the Department of Homeland Security had let you down. Here the problem is that the European Court of Human Rights, to which Britain is a party, has ruled that Qatada cannot be sent back to his native Jordan to be put on trial for terrorist offenses. The court’s reasoning is not that he’ll be tortured in a Middle Eastern country not beholden to anti-torture provisions (the UK went to great lengths to gain assurances from Jordan that he would not be), but that those who will be brought in to give evidence against Qatada might be tortured (the UK didn’t even realize this was a concern for the ECHR until the ruling was handed down). At this rate, David Cameron might hope that the Hashemite kingdom succumbs to an Arab Spring uprising so that Qatada can be put on a plane to Amman as an honored guest of a provisional government rather than as a prisoner of the state.
The regional cataclysms in the Middle East and North Africa may take decades to descry a distinct historical epoch, however, their effects on the British political landscape are already beginning to be felt in the eeriest ways. The new theme or byword of this election season is sectarianism. Only, it isn’t Muslims preying upon latent ethnic or confessional tensions, it’s a duo of aged white socialists -- one running for mayor of London, the other the recent victor of a by-election no one thought he could win -- who are shamelessly condescending to Muslims to return themselves to power. That both Ken Livingstone and George Galloway have received paychecks from Press TV, a wholly owned subsidiary of the wholly sanctioned Islamic Republic of Iran, is not nearly so damning in the contemporary British context as is the fact that Livingstone has hidden some of this mullah money in onshore tax havens. His class hypocrisy eclipsed all others errors of morality and political judgment.
“Left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers” was how Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer semi-approvingly described the caricaturist’s take on New York in 1977. If only the lines were so clearly drawn in London in 2012. Livingstone, the former mayor who was defeated by the tousle-haired Etonian Boris Johnson in 2008 and is running against him again, recently suggested that gay men who moved to Dubai would “have their penises cut off.” The British Conservative Party, Livingstone said, was “riddled” with homosexuals and he also credited same-sex preferences with advancing the careers of many otherwise undeserving Labour officials. “Red” Ken’s pink outreach needed improving after he twice invited Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London despite Qaradawi’s well-known defenses of suicide bombing, wife beating and the murder of what are apparently quite a lot Tories and a few arriviste Labourites. To this date, he refused to apologize for the dual invitations, which also upset the other demographic he’s had trouble cultivating.
On March 1, Livingstone told a collection of British Jews seeking reassurance that a vote for him wouldn’t be a vote for masochism that he didn’t expect them to vote for him anyway. Why? Because Labour represents the left and Jews are too rich to vote for left-wing policies. This isn’t anti-Semitic, you see, just old Ken callin’ ‘em like he sees ‘em -- who wouldn't love a Fabian Joe Biden? Yet, as Telegraph reporter and longtime Livingstone antagonist Andrew Gilligan has noticed, the Jewish Question comes out quite a bit in Livingstone’s new memoir, which only reviewers seem to have read. Gilligan tallied up the word repetitions and concluded that “[t]here are in the book, 64 mentions of ‘Israel’ or ‘Israelis’ and 32 mentions of ‘Zionists’ or ‘Zionism.’ This compares with only 30 mentions of the words ‘TfL’ or ‘Transport for London,’ and only 17 mentions of ‘NHS’ or ‘National Health Service.’”
Passover seder invitations are unlikely to follow Livingstone’s latest suggestion that London should become “a beacon that demonstrates the meaning of the words of the Prophet.” He didn’t mean Isaiah. “I want to spend the next four years making sure that every non-Muslim in London knows and understands [its] words and message,” he preached at the notorious Finsbury Park mosque where the “Shoebomber” Richard Reid once went for spiritual sustenance and where I’d like to think a few puzzled congregants wondered why Islamic education should be the purview of a public servant meant to be preoccupied with TfL and NHS. Jonathan Freedland, a liberal columnist who won’t vote for Livingstone this election, rightly points out that the Labour party is worried about its man:
Labour brass don't deny the problem, one conceding that Livingstone's approach "looks like a sectional strategy", pitting one community against another – and favouring the one with more votes – even if that is not its intention. Such an approach is doomed, if not dangerous in our diverse, plural capital. As that Labour source says, “You have to be a mayor for all of London, not bits of London”.
Bits of Northern England, on the other hand, needn’t pretend to multicultural tolerance when denouncing parliamentary hopefuls as apostates will do. George Galloway, a Scottish Catholic who has appeared on reality television in a leotard dancing next to a transsexual, took last week’s by-election in the Muslim-predominant city of Bradford West by running as more of a pious Muslim than his actual Muslim rival. “God KNOWS who is a Muslim,” Galloway’s campaign literature read. “And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you. Let me point out to all the Muslim brothers and sisters what I stand for: I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if you believe the other candidate in this election can say that truthfully.”
What Galloway can say truthfully is a matter of longstanding curiosity in Britain. Saddam Hussein liked a nice glass of burgundy with his meals but that didn’t stop the Dundee-born wide boy from addressing him thus in 1994: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability, and I want you to know that we are with you, hatta al-nasr, hatta al-nasr, hatta al-Quds [until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem.” In 2005, Galloway gave a talk at Damascus University and referred to Bashar al-Assad, who mocks the faith of the Syrians he’s now murdering by the thousands, as “the last Arab ruler” and Syria as “the last Arab country. It is the fortress of the remaining dignity of the Arabs, and that’s why I'm proud to be here.”
Galloway claims to have been expelled from the Labour party in 2003 for opposing the Iraq war, though it was his endorsement of the jihadist murder of British soldiers that decided it. His political fortunes have waxed and waned since, and his vision of fusing a constituency out of dead-end “anti-imperialists” and theocratic reactionaries seemed destined for diminishing returns in June 2010 when he was accosted by members of the now-banned extremist group Islam4UK. They called him a “filthy kaffir” (probably something to do with the leotard and the tranny) and refused to shake the hand that plenty of dictators have shaken. This was but a temporary setback. After campaigning like a Hamas interior minister, Galloway was quick to declare his victory the “Bradford spring.”
Take heart, ye wretched of Cairo, Tunis and Damascus, for your struggle is equal to the struggle for West Yorkshire.