By Aijaz Zaka Syed
12 May 2016
Race is the ultimate reality, said Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Conservative prime minister. Although the colour of one’s skin still matters, Britain has come a long way since the time of its first Jewish prime minister. Nothing better encapsulates this change than the historic election of Sadiq Khan as the mayor of London.
It is a tribute to the British democracy that the humble son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver has been chosen to lead the most iconic of Western cities. But does this spectacular victory signal an end of racism and Islamophobia in Britain. Maybe not. But it certainly marks an extraordinary moment of hope and triumph against intolerance and bigotry. As Khan himself put it after his victory, this is a triumph of hope over fear.
No wonder this election is being billed as Britain’s own Obama moment. This is all the more significant considering the bitter, racist and Islamophobic campaign that was held against him by the ruling Conservative Party’s Zac Goldsmith.
From mocking his Islamic faith to calling him a national security threat, including by Prime Minister Cameron himself, they tried every dirty trick in the book against him. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon suggested that Khan was unfit to be mayor, implying that as a Muslim he was a security threat. So much so that veteran journalist Peter Oborne compared the campaign against Khan to the 1964 general election in which the Tories had run on the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Labour”.
The Londoners ignored all this toxic negativity to elect the human rights lawyer as their mayor, handing him a powerful mandate. He won by more than 1.3 million votes, an extraordinary feat unsurpassed by any politician in British history. This is really something considering the breathless hype of UK tabloids screaming about London becoming ‘Londonistan’, Muslims form just about 12 percent of the city’s population.
So this election is remarkable as much for the extraordinary journey of Khan as it is for the multicultural London and its large heartedness as a city.
At a time when across the pond, the presumed presidential candidate of the oldest party is threatening to ban Muslims and build walls to keep out immigrants, the capital of the oldest democracy has reposed its faith in the son of a Muslim immigrant.
In many ways, this is a victory of the multicultural Britain, now home to a large, diverse population of South Asians, Arabs, African and many other communities.
The endless flood of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East and Africa into Europe, coupled with the murderous antics of Daesh lunatics, have hardened European and Western attitudes toward new and recent arrivals. This is not a good time to be a migrant or immigrant in the West.
Which is why Sadiq Khan’s election is truly momentous? It is also courageous on the part of the Labour Party to field a Muslim for the prestigious office. Not bad for a party that had not too long ago been led by an unabashed Islamophobe like Blair. The credit for this turnaround undoubtedly goes to its new liberal leader Jeremy Corbyn, known for his lifelong championing of humanitarian causes and voiceless sections of society.
It has understandably been a long journey for Khan himself. His father arrived in the UK from Pakistan in 1960s, whose parents had migrated from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition. One of seven children, the new mayor of London grew up in government housing and has worked hard to reach where he has.
On the eve of his election, the former human rights lawyer told the New York Times’ Stephen Castle, “I’m a Londoner, I’m a European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband.”
Above all, as Roger Cohen argues in the New York Times, Sadiq Khan is the ultimate anti-Trump. While the US presidential hopeful has shamelessly used hate, playing on the deep-seated insecurities and prejudices to reach where he has — at the top of the Republican race, the humble Labour politician has won this race by preaching love and tolerance. His speeches delivered after the 7/7 London bombings and the Paris terror attacks, making a powerful case against extremism, still resonate with many. Sadiq Khan couldn’t have registered his spectacular victory without reaching out to all sections of the multicultural London, the ultimate global melting pot of cultures where every tongue is spoken.
And, to quote Cohen again, the world of the 21st century is going to be shaped by such elided, many-faceted identities and by the booming cities that celebrate diversity, not by some bullying, brash, bigoted, “America first” white dude who wants to build walls. Celebrating the change in London, US author and academic Prof Juan Cole has pointed out that this isn’t the first time that a Muslim is running a great Western city. For 13 centuries, Muslims have managed the affairs of great European cities — from Constantinople (Istanbul) to Cordoba, and from Palermo, the capital of Muslim Sicily, to Athens and Budapest during the long Ottoman rule over nearly half of Europe.
Even today, London is not the only European city to have a Muslim mayor. The sitting elected Muslim mayors include Erion Veliaj of Tirana, Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, and Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina. On the other hand, Sarajevo, the capital of Muslim-majority Bosnia, elected Ivo Komšic, a Christian, in 2013. One only wishes there were more such examples.
Would Karachi, Tehran or Baghdad ever elect a non-Muslim mayor? While rightly urging and expecting Europe to embrace Muslims, Islamic societies cannot claim to be judged by a different standard.
Pakistani commentators have admitted that Khan himself wouldn’t have probably stood a chance in the country of his parents. As Maheen Usmani puts it, as the son of immigrants and a minority, Pakistanis wouldn’t have given Sadiq Khan the time of the day. Nonetheless, his story is more than a ray of shining hope for millions of Muslims and immigrants in Europe and around the world.
At a time when his kind are being increasingly painted everywhere as an unwanted burden and, worse, as a clear and present danger to host societies, Khan comes across as a role model for not just Muslims in the West but dreamers everywhere. He demolishes the facile myths and stereotypes about Muslims to prove that they work as hard, if not more, as anyone else to build their lives and careers and could contribute to society at large.
When politicians everywhere are increasingly turning to all sorts of parochialism to grab power, here is someone who has won by appealing to the better judgment and humanity of his voters.
And it is examples like these that are perhaps the best antidote to both the intolerance and bigotry of Donald Trump and the hate and violent chaos of the Daesh kind. This is the only way forward for Muslims in the West or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. There is no alternative to hard work, sincerity and dedication. Success demands both excellence of efforts and power of perseverance. There is no other way up.