Last week London elected the first Muslim mayor of an European Union capital. Sadiq Khan, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, authoritatively beat his millionaire rival Zac Goldsmith. With a global constituency, and the holding the reigns of one of the great cities of the world, 45-year old Khan is now one of the most powerful politicians in the West.
London is a cosmopolitan city. 8.5 million people live there, 38% of whom were born outside of the United Kingdom. It has a long-established Muslim community, making up around 12% of the population. Questions of integration and identity of Europe’s Muslim populations were propelled to global attention in recent months following terrorist attacks by nationals in Belgium and France. These issues have been seized upon by right-wing groups to claim that Europe faces an existential threat from Islam. But last week, in electing the son of a Muslim immigrant, London confidently flipped Khan’s slogan – A Mayor For All Londoners – to say “Londoners For A (Muslim) Mayor.”
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I’ll be a Mayor for all Londoners. pic.twitter.com/Zt9X2kIbrA
Some argue that focussing on religion misses the point. Most people didn’t vote for Khan because he’s Muslim – they were attracted by his promises of affordable housing, cheaper transport and a united London. He is liked because he is a normal guy. His father was a bus driver from Pakistan who immigrated to the UK. His mother was a seamstress, and Khan grew up with his 7 siblings in social housing. He became a human rights lawyer and in 2005 was elected to Parliament. His story stands in stark contrast to his predecessor Boris Johnson – a millionaire and member of the social elite.
But to argue that Khan’s religion is irrelevant is to ignore the impact on those who feel rejected from Europe of seeing ‘someone like me’ taking a powerful elected position. This is not about politics of aspiration. Khan’s election does not (only) say to young Muslims ‘look what you can be’ – more importantly it says ‘look who your fellow Londoners chose to represent us in London and to the world’. To non-Muslims in Europe it demonstrates there is more to Islam than talk of headscarves and mosques. It’s a powerful and conscious rejection of the small-minded, divisive politics of the Trumps, Wilders and Le Pens of the world.
Khan now has a big platform. Some interesting clarifications have already had to be issued. Donald Trump – the likely Republican nominee for the American election later this year – extended an invitation to Khan to visit, explaining that the Mayor would be exempt from his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US. Khan declined.
Closer to home, Khan will have some interesting colleagues. In April the far-right Freedom party in Austria won 36% of first round votes in the Presidential election, while Poland has been governed by anti-immigration party Law and Justice since October, propelled to power on anti-Muslim sentiment. Smaller fringe groups in Sweden, France and Germany have been capitalizing on the refugee crisis to recruit supporters and build a more visible public presence. Khan’s election deals a blow to these anti-immigration groups across Europe who claim to be finally recognized as the voice of a not-so-silent majority.
Perhaps Khan’s swearing-in as a member of the Privy Council (a ceremonial group of advisors to the Crown) that best highlights the meaning of London’s decision. The story goes that Khan had to bring along his own Qur’an to swear on. When Buckingham Palace called to return the copy, he replied ‘Can I leave it for the next person?’.