By Mehdi Hasan
As the votes in London’s mayoral election were being counted on May 5, almost every British Muslim I know seemed to have only one thought: Would Sadiq Khan pull it off?
He did. Mr. Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was elected as the first Muslim mayor of a Western capital city, with more than 1.3 million votes, in what is being called the biggest mandate in the history of British politics. And the Labour candidate managed his landslide even after his opponent, the Conservative politician Zac Goldsmith, smeared him as a “radical” and shamelessly accused him of giving “oxygen” to extremists.
Islamophobes are tearing their hair out as they decry the Islamisation of Britain. But for all the Muslim baiting, London’s new mayor is part of an encouraging trend. He’s just the latest in a series of observant Muslims who have captured the hearts and minds of the British public. Last October, 14.5 million Britons tuned in to watch the smiling, Hijab-clad Nadiya Hussain, the daughter of a waiter from Bangladesh, as she was crowned champion of “The Great British Bake Off,” a TV show. In April, Riyad Mahrez, who was born in Paris to an Algerian father and a Moroccan mother, was awarded the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year trophy after scoring 17 goals for Leicester City, which went on to a surprise victory in the Premier League championship.
In a perfect world, the faith of a TV cooking show star, an athlete or even a major politician would be irrelevant. But in our deeply imperfect — and, yes, Islamophobic — world, it isn’t. British newspapers are filled with alarmist headlines about “Muslim sex grooming” and “the rise in Muslim birth-rate.” Earlier this year, Trevor Philips, the former chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, accused Britain’s Muslims of “becoming a nation within a nation.”
It’s harder to say that now. The tide is turning in the toxic debate on Islam, integration and multiculturalism. As Mr. Khan told Time magazine, the best way to fight extremism is to “say to youngsters you can be British, Muslim and successful” and to “point to successful British role models,” like Zayn Malik, a pop star, and Mo Farah, an Olympic gold medal-winning runner. London’s new mayor may become the ultimate role model. I imagine Muslim parents across Britain are now reciting Sadiq Khan’s name to their kids. It’s one thing to celebrate the Muslim winner of a reality TV show; quite another to have a Muslim elected to one of the highest offices in the land.
Mr. Khan’s resounding victory was a stinging rebuke to the peddlers of prejudice. Here is a Muslim who prays and fasts and has gone on the hajj to Mecca. But he sees no contradiction in being a card-carrying liberal, too. As a member of Parliament, he voted — despite death threats from Islamist extremists — in favor of same-sex marriage and he campaigned to save a local pub in his constituency from closure. He has pledged to serve as a “feminist mayor” of London and made his first public appearance after the election at a Holocaust memorial service.
The capital, admittedly, is a city apart — diverse, immigrant-friendly and home to around four in 10 of England’s 2.6 million Muslims. But even outside London, the more relaxed and tolerant British model of multiculturalism has done a far superior job of integrating, even embracing, religious and racial diversity than the more muscular, assimilationist models in Continental Europe.
While Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have declared multiculturalism a failure, the truth is that their countries, Germany and France, have never tried it. As Tariq Modood, the author of “Still Not Easy Being British,” writes, multiculturalism is the “political accommodation of difference.” For the French, however, difference has never even been tolerated, much less accommodated. In contrast, British-style multiculturalism has treated integration, as even David Cameron conceded almost a decade ago, as “a two-way street” and never required, in the words of Will Kymlicka, the author of “Multicultural Odysseys,” that “prior identities” must “be relinquished” in order to build a national identity.
Is it surprising that polls find that British Muslims are more patriotic and take more pride in their national identity than their non-Muslim counterparts and studies show that ethnic and religious segregation in Britain is either steady or in decline?
That isn’t to deny the problems. Britain’s Muslims tend to have the highest unemployment, worst health and fewest educational qualifications of any faith community. But this likely has more to do with a history of racism than it does with an unwillingness to integrate. A 2013 study found that Muslim men in Britain were up to 76 percent less likely to get a job offer than Christian men of the same age holding similar qualifications, while Muslim women were 65 percent less likely to be employed than Christian women.
The situation, then, is far from perfect, but there is a good reason that British Muslims look across the English Channel and breathe a sigh of collective relief.
It is difficult to imagine a Mayor Khan being elected in Berlin or the Hijab-clad Hussain being embraced by French TV viewers. In Germany, a far-right, anti-immigrant party did surprisingly well in recent local elections. The prime minister of France has suggested that a “majority of French citizens’ doubt” that Islam is compatible with French society. Meanwhile, the Czech president claims it is “impossible” to integrate Muslims in Europe.
Such virulent rhetoric risks becoming self-fulfilling: The more you demonize Islam and Muslims, and the more Muslims are treated as “them” and not “us,” the more you push people apart. Fear and loathing is not a strategy for integration. Last week, Londoners, in the words of their new mayor, chose “hope over fear and unity over division.” It’s an example for the rest of Europe.
Mehdi Hasan presents “UpFront” and “Head to Head” on Al Jazeera English and an author of “Ed,” a biography of Ed Miliband, the former Labour Party leader.