London elects its first Muslim mayor to a sense of hope

May 26

London elects its first Muslim mayor to a sense of hope

Florida Times Union, May 16, 2016

Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, being elected Mayor of London, topples a pervading narrative and in its wake leaves behind unparalleled opportunities. The son of Pakistani immigrants rising to run one of the leading cities in the globe is almost as remarkable as the more celebrated story across the pond, that of a Black man rising to lead the world’s most powerful country. The parallels are uncanny. Both Barack Obama and Sadiq Khan were lawyers who met their wives while working as colleagues at a law firm. Both have two young daughters. Both were wrongly accused of palling around with terrorists and against heavy odds succeeded in beating back a dog-whistle campaign laced with racism and Islamophobia.

The isolated Muslim immigrant impervious to the secular values of Western societies is a ubiquitous media storyline. The alienation of Muslim youth is pinpointed as fertile ground for indoctrinating terrorists. These hackneyed story lines, even when true, mask other compelling narratives. Many Muslims have achieved extraordinary success in Europe and enriched the lives of others in the process. Khan’s success validates the dreams of migrants who come to Europe and America tantalized by the promise of freedom and opportunity.

Recently, Nadiya Hassan, a young British Muslim woman, was asked to bake the official cake for the Queen Elizabeth’s ninetieth birthday. The darling of English soccer, Leicester City, just won the English Premier League title against 5000-1 odds. One of its star contributors, Riyad Mahrez, an Algerian Muslim, was just named PFA Player of the Year. In 2014, when Germany won the soccer World Cup, they got important contributions from two Muslims – Ozil and Khedira. The current German national soccer team sports four Muslims. It is not coincidental that countries where Muslims have contributed the most, Britain and Germany, also happen to be places with the most favorable opinions about Muslims.

Yet, such successes have not impeded anti-Muslim headwinds now sweeping across the continent and blowing just as strong in America. Just as the election of the first Black man to the White House did not solve the problems of structural racism, the election of the first Muslim to be London’s mayor will not erase Islamophobia. While many chose to celebrate Khan’s ability to defy stereotypes, others chose to paint his Muslim identity as a political flaw preying upon unsubstantiated fears of Muslim infiltration. The right-wing Drudge Report, for example, welcomed Khan’s victory with the headline “Khan of Londonistan” and a picture of Khan performing his pilgrimage to Mecca.

The election of Khan also offers unprecedented opportunities. Khan’s ancestral homeland, Pakistan, has been the hotbed of violent extremism. Part of that extremism is based on an entrenched idea that “the West” and Islam are destined to remain in interminable enemies. Khan’s election shows that the people of “the West” are not at war with Islam. Challenges abound but not an intractable war. Though some Muslims will undoubtedly be dismissive of Khan’s liberal agenda, far more will be inspired to imagine a new future where being Muslim and Western are not mutually exclusive.

Khan’s rise also signals success for secular politics. One can only hope that it signals to Muslim majority societies to follow London’s example and elect leaders based on their vision and agenda not their religion or race. Khan, by all accounts, is a practicing Muslim but does not wear religion on his sleeves. His political agenda is based on a common good – greater equality and opportunity for all citizens, not just for those with whom he shares a house of worship.

Khan embodies the egalitarian spirit of Islam, today jaded by the upsurge of Islamist identity politics and movements. The Quran unequivocally asserts, “It was only as a mercy that We (God) sent you (Prophet Muhammad) to all people(21:107).” If Khan lives up to his campaign promises he will not only gain the respect of Londoners, he will also fulfill his duty to his faith. A lot is riding on his young shoulders. But given his life story of pushing the boundaries of possibilities, one cannot help but be optimistic.