George Galloway, former member of the British Parliament, has long had a reputation as a controversial politician.
During a visit to Iraq in 1994, the left-leaning legislator told Saddam Hussein, the country’s then-dictator, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”
As a politician, Galloway was fervently antiwar, and famously known for his criticism of the British invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was eventually expelled from the Labor Party, which he first aligned with when he was just 13. He founded the left-wing Respect Party in 2004.
The Scottish-born newsmaker has now retired from the political arena. “After 23 years, I decided enough was enough,” said Galloway, who resigned in 2010. “Even Mandela only did 27 years.”
Galloway was recently in Jakarta to launch the Indonesian chapter of Viva Palestina, a charity organization he founded in 2009 to send humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
He spent 10 days in Jakarta and Bandung holding rallies, meeting local politicians, giving lectures at universities and engaging in discussions about Palestine with NGOs.
A few things about the Scotsman remain the same: Galloway is still fond of Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary who inspired him as a youth. He calls Guevara “the greatest man of the 20th century.”
Galloway is now the host of two TV shows and two radio programs, and splits his time between his homes in London and Beirut. The 57-year-old just became a father again last year with his now-former partner, Rima Husseini.
The recent trip to Indonesia marked Galloway’s second visit to Jakarta — his first involved a quick appearance at the Asia-Pacific Community Conference for Palestine (ASPAC) last year.
“I was only here for 36 hours [in 2011], but long enough to know that there is massive support of Palestine in Indonesia, so I would like to integrate that with the global movement,” he said.
Last week, Galloway also met Din Syamsudin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Muslim organization. (Din founded the Indonesian-Palestinian Friendship Initiative, or PPIP.)
Indonesia is the 16th country to join Galloway’s humanitarian organization, following neighbors Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.
“Indonesia’s presence in the international solidarity movement is quite small, but it is, by no means, nonexistent,” Galloway said.
“We want to bring this populous country more deeply into international solidarity work.”
Galloway said the response from lawmakers, ministers and activists was positive, and said Indonesia had enormous potential to be an influential player in helping to solve the Gaza Strip conflict.
The problem, he said, is that Indonesia’s support has been taken for granted, since the country does not have diplomatic ties with Israel.
“People assume there’s nothing to boycott, because there is no relationship [with Israel] in Indonesia,” he said. “I told them that there might be no Israeli Embassy in Jakarta, but Starbucks is on every corner, and it’s flying Israel’s flag.”
Galloway compared Indonesia to Turkey, a secular majority Muslim country that’s playing a role in the Gaza conflict.
“All I’m saying to the political leadership in Indonesia is to be like [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” he said. “He’s still a key ally to the United States, but he’s very clear about his stance on Palestine.”
Each branch office of Viva Palestina is an independent organization, and each individual country is in control of its own finances, activities and constitution.
Galloway said he hoped that each individual chapter shared the same goal of helping Palestinians.
He sees four significant benchmarks on the horizon for Viva Palestina Indonesia this year: The first is for the chapter to show support on Land Day, an annual day of commemoration date for Palestinians that falls on March 30.
The second is to have an Indonesian presence in a convoy of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip on May 15. The third goal is for a candidate from the Indonesian chapter to spend a summer studying the Palestine situation in a program at the American University of Beirut.
The final benchmark is for Indonesia to host a similar program.
“I just thought about this yesterday, and I raised the question to the parliamentary officials and they’re interested, but it’s not a fully developed project yet,” Galloway said.
For Galloway, the conflict between Israel and Palestinian is no longer a problem between Muslims and Jews, it is a matter of humanity.
Galloway himself likes to be discreet about his own faith. “Only God knows if I am a Muslim or not,” he said.
Having been a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, the conflict is now part of his life. Galloway said he had received accusations and threats when he was an active politician because of his so-called radical views.
Galloway’s family and friends worried about his safety. When he was fired from the Labor Party, he was labeled a traitor for going against the party’s leader, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“I never worried about that because I am not a traitor,” he said. “It was Mr. Blair who was the traitor, because he sold our country to George W. Bush.”
Right now, Galloway is working on Viva Palestina’s aid convoy to the Gaza Strip through Egypt, the first trip since the fall of longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The country is more welcoming now, Galloway said.
Two years ago Viva Palestina’s aid convoy clashed with the Egyptian Army, leaving 55 people wounded and resulting in Galloway’s deportation. Viva Palestina was banned from traveling across Egypt, which was lifted in October of last year.
Although he is no longer a member of the British Parliament, Galloway is still eager to advocate on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
He uses social media to get his message across, and regularly talks about his work, his thoughts, experiences and updates on the Palestinian situation on his Twitter and YouTube accounts.
“I tweet a lot, and do it myself, so if you see it, it’s from me,” he said, pulling out his iPhone from his pocket.
After witnessing how social media was a helpful tool for the Arab Spring, Galloway said he was planning his own mobile app (the Galloapp) to share daily updates and stay better connected to fans and friends. Galloway said the app would be launched in London in the next few weeks.
“My friends are mainly younger than me and they are very much into this thing,” he said. “I will be the first politician with an app.”