Last week there has been a lot of discussion about people’s attitudes to rape with regard mostly to the extradition of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, currently hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, from which he made a speech to his supporters last weekend. A number of politicians and journalists of the left who really should know better have lined up to defend him or at least oppose his extradition, including George Galloway, John Pilger (in yesterday’s New Statesman), Craig Murray, Tony Benn and even Lisa Longstaff and Katrin Axelsson from Women Against Rape, all of which has led to a fire-storm of protest, some of it quite legitimate and in some cases vindictive and driven by other agendas. It has to be said that the debate has brought out the worst, and most irrational and bigoted, in a lot of people. Galloway’s ridiculous defence of his ‘hero’ is the second time he has disgraced himself in public from a platform provided for him by Muslims, and it raises the issue of whether we should continue to give him one.
I am in two minds about the matter of Assange’s extradition. A common theme is that Assange is safer in Sweden than he is in the UK, because Sweden never extradites people when there is the slightest risk of the suspect facing the death penalty. However, in 2001 two men were forcibly deported from Sweden to Egypt without due process, arrested in the street (in one case in a phone booth talking to his lawyer) and expelled from the country within hours. One of the men was sentenced to 15 years in prison in an Egyptian military tribunal and only released after Mubarak’s fall from power. So, much as Britain has an extremely lax extradition treaty with the USA, it does not summarily remove people to foreign countries without often lengthy process. This may have been more than ten years ago under a different government (their deportations were later overturned, but of course, this was only after both men had spent time in an Egyptian prison and one of them was still in jail), but Britain has no recent record of such behaviour.
On the other hand, Ecuador is a curious country for anyone who has caused embarrassment to the American establishment to seek asylum in, because it is a small country whose government could change fairly quickly or be toppled tomorrow in a military coup, and if that happens, the Americans would only need a quiet word in the new president’s, or dictator’s, ear and Assange would be on a plane to the USA. Perhaps he believes he could travel freely in South America if allowed to travel there as a number of countries have governments which pride themselves on resisting American power and breaking with a past dominated by US-friendly capitalist dictators. The country, while no “tyrannical banana republic” as Melanie Phillips called it, is also not a haven of freedom of expression and recently arrested a Belarussian dissident wanted in his home country for charges his supporters say are a retaliation for exposing corruption in his home country’s government. Assange and a few of his close supporters are known to be close to the Belarusian regime, which despite a bit of democratic window-dressing is for all intents and purposes still a dictatorship. Why would a man supposedly dedicated to the cause of transparency in government in his own country and those with a similar culture align himself with one of the least transparent countries in the world? The same man is also on record as calling the Afghans named in his leaked cables informers who “have it coming” if they get punished. It is a mystery why anyone still regards him as a friend of whistleblowers, such that they should so vigorously oppose his extradition to face unrelated charges — the man is a duplicitous egomaniac and an utter moral reprobate.
One of the people who leapt to Assange’s defence was George Galloway, currently Respect party MP for Bradford West, which he won with 56.5% of the vote in a seat with a very substantial Muslim population. He previously held the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow for the same party, which he won in 2005 on the back of an anti-war vote, albeit with only 35.9% of the vote. His voting record as MP in east London was miserable — he attended only 7.6% of Commons votes, and his record was at one point the lowest of all MPs except the Prime Minister, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, two who were dead, and Sinn Fein — in other words, the worst of all regular MPs — although this has increased to 23.7% in his present seat. Notoriously, he made a public laughing stock of himself, and his constituents, by appearing in Celebrity Big Brother when Parliament was sitting, and cavorting in a cat suit with Rula Lenska.
That kind of behaviour, for any Muslim public figure, would have resulted in a huge loss of face among the community and might well have meant he would never be welcome at a Muslim public function ever again. Obviously we cannot expect a politician, Muslim or otherwise, to have the same lifestyle as an imam, but surely we should expect more from someone who asks for our vote in a prime Muslim constituency like Bradford West than we get from this man? This time around, it is well-known that the effort to get him elected was largely the work of women, and Labour’s failure to win the seat (with a Muslim former mayor) was put down, in large part, with their failure to connect with local Muslim women, relying on his connections to prominent (male) community leaders. In a YouTube video speech (it’s half an hour long with a rather amusing arms trade parody as an intro, but the gist of it is on this extract on the Guardian’s website), he gives an account which is remarkably different from that given by Assange’s own lawyer — the bit where one of the women presses her legs together and rolls over to prevent Assange penetrating her is missing, for example — and then calls it simply bad manners, brutish, but not rape. I wonder what the women who helped him get elected think of his cavalier attitude to the subject — do not assume they are submissive housewives; many of them have a recent history of fighting for their rights both within the community and without, and may not take kindly to a male politician they helped elect telling them that rape is not rape just because the perpetrator is supposedly a hero.
Of course, the vast majority of ‘acquaintance rapes’ do not get prosecuted and a large proportion are never even reported, but if it were not for this man’s hero status (which, in the light of his public pronouncements, is entirely unjustified), if he was prosecuted for rape in the circumstances described, it would widely be acknowledged that the prosecution was quite right and proper. I find the argument “why this rapist and why now?” to be unconvincing — the bottom line is that Julian Assange, like Ched Evans, is unlucky to be one of the few perpetrators to lose the lottery and be exposed, in this case because he was foolish enough to give a lot of people reason to want to expose anything they could about him.
I am pleased Salma Yaqoob, Respect’s party leader (who is not an MP; she has held a council seat in Birmingham but resigned on health grounds) has criticised Galloway for his stance on this, but as Galloway depends so much on the Muslim vote, we should really up our game in terms of who we allow to represent us. The two recent times that Muslims have voted as a bloc and won, we voted for Galloway, and both times we have been made to look like fools. Is he really the best we can do? We do not owe Galloway a living or a political platform; we need someone from among us who will defend both our religious and political interests both inside and outside Parliament (which means actually going into the House of Commons and voting more than 7% or even a quarter of the time), without repeatedly embarrassing us with publicity stunts and ridiculous public statements.
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