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The Muslim Mayor of London

Sadiq Khan’s electoral victory raises significant thematic issues including the possible diminution in anti-Muslim sentiments, his own British-Pakistani Muslim identity within the context of a cosmopolitan, multicultural and constantly evolving London. One could equally discuss his own past views and those of other Muslims about his Muslimness besides what this election holds for other cities and communities across the European Union. In other words, without undervaluing his own diligence and eligibility, is his victory a ‘one-off’ or could it be a harbinger of similar other strides for minority communities in years to come. Again, what does it mean for younger and often suspected Muslims in Europe, is another important area worth analysing. For the protagonists of multi-culturalism, this is further proof of its success despite the various reservations including its alleged sustenance of ‘segregated’ communities.

While there is a steady rise in Islamophobia interspersed with violence committed by some Muslim militant groups and others often sadly affirming the Huntingtonian premise of clash of cultures, yet concurrently events like Sadiq Khan’s victory in London’s mayoral elections on 5th of May 2016 allude to a landmark transformation. To a great extent, it can be seen as the triumph of pluralism where the son of a working class immigrant Muslim family from Pakistan is able to acquire more votes than even the British Prime Minister. It is neither an act of pity nor is it some kind of exceptionalism, though Londoners deserve all the kudos for rejecting exclusivity while celebrating the multi-cultural ethos of their city. Of course, Sadiq Khan’s Muslimness was ironically problematised by his opponent, Zac Goldsmith, a millionaire Tory stalwart, whose campaign, interestingly, was being supported by another well known Pakistani. Imran Khan, the celebrity-cricketer-politician is the former brother-in-law of Goldsmith who has two sons with Jemima Goldsmith. Thus Sadiq Khan’s Muslimness as well as his Pakistani origin did become talking points as may be the case in such narrowly contested high-stake elections.

Sadiq Khan might not have gained all the Muslim votes given the fact that Muslims in Britain belong to wide varieties of ethnicities, nationalities, persuasions and denominations yet Khan’s rise from a working class background and his unstinted celebration of London’s plurality and openness have been quite helpful despite some nasty moves by his opponents which smacked of age-old “divide-and-rule”.  The parliamentary speech by the British Prime Minister in support of Zac Goldsmith while accusing Khan of a softness for some radical Muslims was not in a good taste since Khan never denied his Muslimness though some of his constituents or even relatives may harbour Islamist tendencies. Even Maajid Nawaz, a former Hizbut Tahrir leader and now a Liberal Democrat, raised issues about Khan’s past association but Londoners surely went beyond such frivolities. His election does not mean that Britain has turned Islamophile and the daily mantra of exceptionalising Muslims and Islam has evaporated in thin air. Still, his election has forcefully disproved anti-Muslim campaigns by groups such as Britain First and English Defence League and instead Londoners have delivered a verdict in favour of programmic politics seeking major improvements in transport, housing and civic facilities.

According to some observers, London’s elite, otherwise often scornful of religion in the public sphere, allow minorities to identify with their creeds since they assume them to be primitive, if not totally backward. Such an opinion can be partly true since the previous mayors of London—Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson—never attracted any public rancour about their religious background or the lack of it, nor did Goldsmith’s Jewish identity find any reference the way Khan’s Muslimness was flagged by all sides for all kinds of purposes. In the process, Khan also tried to distance himself from his Muslimness especially when someone asked him about face veiling, which is practised by a tiny minority of Muslim women. It is vital to know that some British Muslims fear that Khan may singularly remain defensive or even mute about his Muslimness in his four-year mayoral tenure so as not to warrant any Islamophobic censor which may, by default, hinder the processes of rolling back Islamophobia.

While class, creed and even complexion remain powerful identity markers; some of Europe’s urban centres are slowly undergoing major transformation where parallel forces of integration and segregation are constantly contesting for public following. The professionalisation of several ethnic and religious clusters from amongst the minorities has caused greater social mobility and higher levels of integration whereas disadvantaged groups lodged within disabling brackets remain “on the margins”.  There are three million Muslims in Britain and almost half of them live in greater London though they make 10-12 per cent of the metropolitan population. Pakistanis, the biggest ethnic group amongst London’s Muslims, account for forty per cent of the city’s Muslim demography, followed by their Indian and Bangladeshi {Asian} co-religionists. While Muslims in east London may still be slightly behind in terms of socio-economic attainments like some of their counterparts in northern cities, there is no denying the fact that there are virtually hundreds of Muslim councillors and even mayors across the United Kingdom besides several Muslim MP’s with a fair proportion of women among them. In the same vein, there are Muslim student societies and civic groups, media organs, social networks and effective platforms such as the City Circle, The Muslim Institute, Muslim Council of Britain and the like who display a greater level of self-confidence and middle class nomenclature.  

While the media in general may remain centred on a small portion of radicals, a vast majority of Muslims are comfortable with their Britishness and like Khan’s liberal and cosmopolitan supporters they see in him a role model for a more synthesised and forward looking trajectory. It is possible that given the changing demographic contours of other European cities and with the acquisition of knowledge capital and economic security, second and third generation Muslims may become more visible in public spheres and that is where today’s London could prove a trend setter. Khan’s multiple identities as a Londoner, Pakistani, Muslim, a Labour politician, human right lawyer, a supporter of same sex marriage and his pronounced identification with the working classes are strong ingredients of this transforming demography. His installation ceremony in a London Cathedral and his very first public appearance taking place at Holocaust Memorial Day fully underpin his acculturative instinct while retorting those pundits and politicians who had been insidiously pigeonholing Khan’s Muslimness.

Can politicians, like Sadiq Khan and other popular individuals be positive role models? Sure, like Barack Obama, many Londoners have seen in Sadiq Khan a representative of the “underdogs”, too often bypassed or even vilified by powerful, elite establishments. His steadfast campaign, despite formidable challenges and selective critique, affirms salience of democracy, independent thinking and proximity with the populace at large. Instead of a harrowing spectrum of “Londonistan” as per Melanie Phillips, or similar predictions of the Islamification of Euroepan societies such as Britain, we see Islam and Europe converging and even synthesising. If Sadiq Khan is successfully able to deliver in areas like transport and housing, besides making London more affordable for its inhabitants, certainly he will be able to draw in more men and women from the minority communities for mainstream public careers. In an emphatic way, he could persuade angry and even alienated younger Muslims to turn into stakeholders for more responsive public policies. Khan did underplay his ethno-religious identity by prioritising his persona as a Londoner, as he observed:

“Let me be very clear, I’m not a Muslim leader or Muslims’ spokesperson, I’m the mayor of London. I speak for all Londoners”.

However, this son of immigrants did highlight the fact that his election proved

“that it’s possible to be a Muslim and a Westerner. {And instead of any mutual exclusivity} Western values are compatible with Islam”.

Iftikhar H. Malik, FRHisSoc, is Professor of History at Bath Spa University and an MCR at Wolfson College, Oxford.