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Movements not Moments: Young People, Democratising and a Muslim Mayor

Standing tall above the heads of a gathering small crowd of young people at a protest in Washington, D.C. in April of this year, Reverend Dr. William Barber decked out in a black suit with a white collar, visibly a man of the cloth, declares “We don’t need moments, we need movements” in response to a question. Reverend Dr. Barber, North Carolina’s NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) President, belongs to an eminent and revolutionary heritage of the Civil Rights Movement which burst forth from the resolve and energies of a citizenry demanding change in the United States of America: the equality of black people in the face of Jim Crow segregation and discrimination.

Once again, the moment for the demand of change has erupted in the election year of 2016. The political wind in the USA is fast becoming a haboob. Two multimillionaires (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) and a democratic socialist (Bernie Sanders), the Democratic Party has not yet formally chosen its candidate, are still in the contest to succeed Barack Obama as president. Although conventional politics has become more of a question of projecting the right image according to the most recent polling, rather than substantive policy debates between candidates, the stunning rise of Sanders on the American political theatre has rejuvenated the relationship between a politician and his or her supporters. American establishment politics and mainstream media have tried to obscure both the push to democratise party politics and the critique of the relationship between big capital and politicians shaping public policies.

Instead the media circus following politics is preoccupied with the corridors of power often described to be top-down and institutional (or the centre) at the expense of the grassroots and bottom-up (the periphery). A bias that tends to be reproduced, if not originating, among political parties and politicians themselves. However, the external façade of power does not and is unable to hide the reality of the burgeoning movements stuck between the compulsion of hegemony, empire, and the yearning for equality, democracy. In America, race, class and gender divisions are constructed and reproduced within the polity and economic relations between citizens. Hierarchy prevails. Large corporations and special interests appear to trump the public interest.

So-called ‘millennials’ or ‘Generation Y’, a term coined to describe young people, in the USA and throughout the globe have participated in challenging the status quo of establishment politics, whether liberal democratic or dictatorial. The waves of popular support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign do not merely confirm the importance of youth in politics in reshaping national politics but also shows intelligent organisational clout in doing so. In other areas of American public life, the Black Lives Matter movement has propelled the issue of police brutality onto the national stage after a string of killings of unarmed black men, women and children.

One of the defining traits of the popular outbreaks of the Arab Spring was the presence of youth, a diverse category, in the organising of protests and spreading of democratic awareness. Wael Ghonim, by far not the exception, is an example of a pioneering leader in the eventual downfall of Hosni Mubarak and the networking of relationships through and beyond the internet that proved to be pivotal in political change. Now many of the youth activists who organised protests such as Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of the April 6 movement, have been imprisoned after convictions for flouting the repressive law that has effectively banned protests in Egypt. The ‘Arab Winter’ narrative ignores the systemic alienation caused by the push-back against youth by entrenched elites through a variety of instruments from censorship to judicial prosecution to demonisation.

Young people, as Reverend Dr. Barber continued in his response, have been the driving forces in the struggle for racial justice and equality since the emancipation of African American slaves in 19th century America. A larger and more vivid picture of political struggles is illustrated rather than mere snapshots of the present that perpetrate figurative violence to the profound meanings attached to collective action. Cornel West, the renowned public intellectual and a democratic socialist, has noted the moral outrage of youth that bears witness to their democratic activism (i.e. the democratic globalisation movement) in opposition to a global order revolving around an American empire. Received wisdom in society has been questioned.

The success in London’s mayoral election of a Labour Party candidate, who also happens to be Muslim, may be viewed as a tremendous symbolic victory for the narrative of a multicultural London and Great Britain. Sadiq Khan has struck a note of independence from the current party leadership led by Jeremy Corbyn, in this even he is not so different from either of his Labour (Ken Livingstone who ran as an independent in his first term) or Conservative (Boris Johnson) predecessors, apparently boosted by a political mandate accruing from direct election. A Labour membership and campaigning from the party’s activists most certainly aided Khan’s victory in no small way first in choosing him as a candidate and then as mayor.

And despite the reckless animus with which the Conservative campaign waged its campaign, playing up the bogeyman of the Labour candidate’s supposed links with alleged extremists, the moment for a Muslim mayor of London has arrived. However, beyond the powerful symbolism and the rhetoric of hope, there persists the challenge of enacting a movement, similar to the movements walking in lockstep with Sanders and the Black Lives Matter, with democratising effects on top-down and bottom-up politics. No comparable phenomenon exists, at least in terms of numbers or nation-wide effect, in the United Kingdom except for the big jump in Labour Party membership just before and after Corbyn was elected leader.

Democratising within political parties, whether the American Democrats or British Labour, is being resisted. Such establishment resistance from within these parties takes place regardless of the facts that Sanders has re-energised politics in a leftward march (pulling Hillary Clinton along with him) away from Trumpesque race-baiting and Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda that actually speaks to the public interest (a much needed robust counterpoint to the Conservative Party’s vision of small government). Commitments to democracy do not end at the ballot box and occupying political office but occasionally culminate in movements with multiple narratives of belonging and social organising which dissent from the status quo, the taken for granted relationship between politics and big capital, in the attempt to soar to new political heights.

Mohammed Moussa has been awarded his doctorate on renewal in the Islamic tradition at the University of Exeter. He is a Muslim Institute Fellow and has recently been appointed Assistant Professor in the Political Science and International Relations Department at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. One of his chief interests, among many, is the Arabo-Islamic heritage as part of a broader and richer experiment called humanity.