By Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
May 11, 2016
IN 2006, I was fortunate to meet Ken Livingstone, Lord Mayor of London, in an interaction during the visit of the Royal College of Defence Studies delegation to the London town hall. I had the honour to raise a question to him which alluded to the fact that with all the financial and cultural activities associated with the ‘alternative’ cities of the world, such as Singapore, Dubai and Hongkong, didn’t he, as Mayor, feel that London’s days were numbered? He didn’t mull even a second as he responded: “But, sir, surely you do forget one thing; London is London.” That, just about sums up what London is all about. You do not have to retrace steps to the story of Puss in Boots to recall the once-poverty-stricken Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, for whom the church bells had predicted his achievement many years before he became one.
The same city of London has now gone and elected a new Mayor for itself to replace the iconic Boris Johnson who may well be heading towards the Prime Ministership, should Cameron lose the Brexit vote. The new incumbent is a British Muslim, son of a former Pakistani citizen who drove buses for a living in London. He is Sadiq Khan, a 45-year-old resident of Tooting and the Labour Party candidate for this election.
In my short time at London, I loved visiting Tooting for its South Asian restaurants and stores to supplement the tastes of my kitchen. Once in a while, there were shootouts and gang wars between rival Pakistani gangs around Tooting and there seemed nothing liberal about that suburb which could fit it into the mould of London. Yet a resident from there has won the election to head one of the most liberal cities of the world.
Given the Islamophobia doing the rounds, would one have expected a Muslim to be elected the Mayor of a metropolis which itself has suffered the effects of Islamic Terrorism (July 7, 2005)? Given the Trumpism effect all over America and the Paris attacks followed by Brussels, would it be even conceivable that a Western capital city would opt for a Muslim as its Mayor? It is easy to brush it off with an assumption by most people that faith is not considered when it comes to elections; only the true worth is seen. This is utopianism because the context of the times always dictates political trends and the Mayorship of that great city is surely as political as can be. Indian-American friends from all over the US are all quietly communicating their concern about the way Trumpism is taking over the thinking of their neighbourhoods and their work places. Hillary is surely not going to find it easy, they say.
If you have lived in the UK for even a short time and interacted with a cross-section of society, you would have realised how different that society is. With all that is happening, in terms of the effect of the Middle East on Europe, we all imagined and believed in the end of liberalism as an ideology. The UK proves that liberalism is yet alive and kicking; if anything, London’s mayoral election confirms it. Khan took 57 per cent of the vote. The latest census showed that 12.4 per cent of Londoners are Muslim, 48.4 per cent Christian, 1.8 per cent Jewish, 5 per cent Hindu, 1 per cent Sikh and 20.7 per cent profess no faith. This means that a vast majority of non-Muslims voted Khan.
British society is the most self-critical, but has a sense of high self-esteem and great respect for freedom and liberty. It takes much to put down that belief. A couple of ragtag jihadi organisations cannot put down that spirit. It is also true that the UK has not suffered the true effects of migration in the way that Europe has. The true worth, some say, will be reflected when London’s famed Waterloo, Paddington and Victoria stations will be teeming with migrants, whose credentials will always be suspect. In saying this, I think the true understanding of the UK’s multi-ethnic culture is lost. I always perceive the British as over-liberal in their belief. Sometimes, one tends to believe that much of this comes from the satisfaction of once having ruled the world and resigned themselves to the dilution of power, without remorse.
Amidst all this, comes the rise of a liberal Muslim who expresses his love for the city and vows to make London safe and happy. It is also the ‘island effect’ at work, where the UK perceives itself as different to Europe and can shut out the insecurity brought on by Islamophobia prevailing around most of the West and continue to believe in liberalism. This is best exemplified by Merkel’s extreme liberal values finding her popularity take a dip; the electorate in Germany is quite different to that of the UK. The UK media, too, displays a quiet maturity, many times choosing to ignore obvious attempts at instigation by radicals. Ignoring them and making them less relevant has been the UK’s way of promoting its own value system which has helped nurture a man like Sadiq Khan, in whom the multi-ethnic and multi-faith electorate of London has reposed faith.
Which way the ideological cookie crumbles in the West will be dictated in the near future when the UK goes to the Brexit polls and the US decides whether it is Trumpism or Hillaryism which prevails. Till then, it is good to remember that London is London.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) is associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group