With the historic election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London this weekend, Contending Modernities solicited the reactions of several leading scholars and analysts on what this election means for London, the UK, and the global context. These responses represent a range of diverse perspectives, demonstrating the rich, and at times contentious, discourse that animates current debates about religion and secularism in late modernity.
London began this past balmy weekend with the news that Sadiq Khan has been elected Mayor of London in a landslide victory – achieving the biggest personal mandate of any politician in UK history.
“Victory for Sadiq Khan highlights tolerant face of London,” says the Financial Times. Indeed, despite some efforts to present Sadiq as a secret Al-Qaeda-supporting fanatic out to impose public beheadings south of the London Eye, Londoners – or at least 57 per cent of them – do not seem to have bought into the idea that Khan is in fact a secret extremist.
I should say that the fact Londoners didn’t buy into that ploy is not exactly cause for a victory dance. If Sadiq Khan, the man who the Daily Mail has called “so liberal he backed gay marriage and even launched his campaign in a pub”, could be seen as an extremist, then frankly the rest of us are screwed. The entire strategy played into some of the most sinister anti-Muslim sentiment currently being peddled as a means of discrediting any Muslim who dares raise their head above the pulpit.
The fact so much has been made of Khan’s “Muslim” identity suggests that despite his victory, Muslimness remains as contentious an identity as ever.
For many Muslims, it was a sign that no matter how clean your slate, the extremist label can be wheeled out to diminish your credibility and, frankly, humanity. And so in this sense, the fact Londoners proverbially raised their eyes at such a crude tactic is a heartening vindication of London’s true vibe – a proud multicultural city that recognises that its diversity is indeed its richness. Studies show it’s much harder to hate people you get to know, and in London Muslims make up around 12.4 per cent of the population. In some boroughs it is 40 per cent, compared with around 4.5 per cent of the general population. Indeed, most Londoners probably just don’t care about Khan’s religion, because they don’t see how it would impact the policies he plans to implement.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this is what people really care about: the fact that a whole generation feels priced out of the housing market; the fact that the cost of public transport has risen under Boris’ watch (a man who was once asked the cost of a single ticket and had no clue); the threefold increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes since the Paris attacks; the need for safe cycle routes, the eye watering cost of rent, and all the other stuff that affects their quality of life. In other words, policy matters.
And the significance of Khan’s “Muslim” identity was always much overstated, both by his worst detractors and by some of his strongest supporters.
Yes, he’s a Muslim, but he’s also many things: British, second-generation Pakistani, a human rights lawyer, and, of course, as we know from his repeated references to his “bus-driving” Dad, working class. And actually this part of his identity may be more significant to Londoners than his faith or his ethnicity. London has become an increasingly divided capital, one in which working class communities are pushed out of their old neighbourhoods by gentrification and cleaners schlep in the small hours of the night to gigantic glass pyramids whose inhabitants they will never meet. Yes, his faith matters – to Muslims and people who hate Muslims – but his working class identity speaks to everyone who wants London to be for everyone. He represents in many ways a kind of Londoner which has been forgotten under the rule of cheerily, proudly posh Boris Johnson.
But I will say this: Khan’s victory is very meaningful to a lot of Muslims who see in him the embodiment of a previously unattainable dream. As one friend who gave up his position elsewhere to campaign for Sadiq explained to me, the symbolism of a Muslim mayor of London for a whole generation of Muslim children who never thought that someone “like him” could attain such a position – is very real indeed. And certainly the symbolism of London electing a Muslim mayor is a powerful one internationally. Perhaps France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls could follow up his congratulations of Khan with an attempt to start tackling the kind of overt and endemic racism which would make Sadiq’s election in today’s France a real impossibility.
But both his detractors and his ardent supporters should know that it’s entirely unlikely Khan will represent “Muslim” interests in the narrowest sense of the term – and that’s a good thing. He’s mayor to all Londoners, and as a good Muslim – and, critically, a good elected official – that should mean a commitment to representing each and every one of them fairly. The Conservatives will have a few lessons to take from this resounding defeat, not least amongst them that in London – despite its reputation for wealth and excess – the appeal of a working class hero shouldn’t be underestimated.
Myriam François is a writer, broadcaster, and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam, and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT World, and writes a regular columns for the New Statesman’s rolling politics blog, “The Staggers”, the Telegraph, and Middle East Eye. Myriam is the presenter of BBC One documentary “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited,” and has also presented a short video for BBC news on the genocide at Srebrenica. Myriam is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues, as well as the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination. Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah and can be contacted at email@example.com.