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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

We need to be vigilant, not vigilantes.

So firebrand George Galloway, of the Workers Party, easily wins Rochdale with 39.7% of the vote after a divisive and controversial campaign with Labour withdrawing its support for their named candidate after his anti-Semitic rhetoric. 


Chris Williamson, like Galloway a former Labour MP and now deputy leader of the Workers Party, told this morning’s Today programme that Galloway’s by-election victory would “send shockwaves through the corridors of power”.


He’s right, of course. It’s not going to be an easy time for Labour, indeed all parties, in the House of Commons for 2024.  A Labour party spokesperson observed: “George Galloway is only interested in stoking fear and division. As an MP he will be a damaging force in our communities and public life”.


Essentially his victory was down to his total support for the Palestinian cause, especially  with the terrible situation facing the besieged people of Gaza.  To support his campaign he named himself “Gaza George Galloway” while his election poster showed his name against the red, black, white and green Palestinian flag.


Galloway ruthlessly went for the large Muslim vote in Rochdale, some 13.9% of the population there.  And of course, they have every right to vote for the candidate whom they perceive will advance their interests.  I imagine that many will have a measure of Galloway, understanding that this is a by-election and not, so-to-speak, the real thing.  Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked. 


You may know that I was a vicar in Rochdale for nearly nine years, albeit 30 years ago.  I don’t know what the situation is like there now but certainly in my time whole neighbourhoods near the town centre were predominantly Muslim.  I recall that one town centre CofE primary school was overwhelmingly Asian.


In contrast our parish, some four miles from the town centre, was nearly all white British, as was our congregation and church school.  You would see lots of Muslims around but the only one I knew was Mr Ali from our local convenience store. 


Again, I don’t know what the situation is there today but in my era we lived as parallel communities, barely intersecting. Looking back with some regret I wish I had done more to make contact with the small Islamic prayer house (I can’t recall its precise title) in White Gates road.


There were some outstanding exceptions. St Luke Deeplish, for example, a town centre church under their hugely gifted vicar, David, was committed to nurturing friendships with their Muslim neighbours.  It was part of their Holy Spirit inspired DNA, to welcome the stranger and to befriend their neighbours. 

However, there is always a need for immigrants to group together in single locations.  It’s what we do as human beings, especially if we feel insecure. 


This was certainly the case when we holidayed in Benalmadena on southern Spain's Costa del Sol.  Such was the size of the Brit colony there, you could spend weeks without even hearing Spanish being spoken.  There was even a daily edition of the Times direct from London printed locally.  And of course, posters advertising the next Manchester United game were everywhere. 


This week I have been reading Californian Old Testament academic, Carly L Crouch, known well to our Hebraist daughter, on how the Hebrew scriptures feature the story of migrants, people forever on the move and having to settle in strange places, often opposed and usually highly vulnerable. 


Think Jacob for example, to be renamed Israel.  Fleeing the fury of his brother Esau, he moves to Shechem, then Bethel, then Bethlehem.  Then finally he is forced by famine, he journeys to Egypt where he encounters his long-lost son Joseph, another migrant.


In fact, Crouch focuses on this migration to Egypt where Jacob’s family settles away from the Egyptians in a distinct community, in Goshen “where they maintain an occupational expertise in sheep  herding, despite the disgust it occasions in their hosts”. 


Not only are they apart from the host community but as the writer of Genesis explains that “all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:34). Clearly little, if any, interaction. 


And this initial separation, Crouch argues, is what caused the total breakdown of relationship years later between the two distinct communities, to the extent that the Pharaoh seeks to frighten his people in words familiar to our own century.

“There are way too many of these Israelites for us to handle. We’ve got to do something: Let’s devise a plan to contain them, lest if there’s a war they should join our enemies, or just walk off and leave us.” (Exodus 1:9f)


Handling the issues of migration and the subsequent problems of integration is arguably the biggest issue facing our politicians, facing us.  It’s not easy and canny politicians like Galloway can so easily exploit for their own ends the tensions between host and immigrant communities. We need to be vigilant, not vigilantes.


For we are living in insecure times and such insecurity begets suspicion. But as the people of St Luke Deeplish demonstrated there is an urgency to move out of  our gated compounds and in Christ’s name to enter other homes, other world, even on their terms.  It’s what Christians do.


For God would challenge us: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

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