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.
With the Name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate
London’s Muslim Mayor – What Implications for the World?
“Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I love London so!” – Thus begins a famous Victorian-era concert hall song. It expresses a sentiment that is certainly true of me and millions of other Londoners, including the UK capital city’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, elected on 5th May 2016 to serve a four-year term. These reflections are written within two days of the new Mayor’s officially taking office.
The Mayor of London is a relatively new post, and Khan has only two predecessors: Ken Livingstone (of the socialist Labour Party, like Khan) and Boris Johnson (Conservative Party), who each served two terms. The Mayor of London has wide-ranging powers relating to transport, housing and other economic policies in the city. His office is at City Hall, which is also home to the Greater London Assembly, elected at the same time. Despite their many achievements and failures, the previous two mayors are perhaps best remembered by Londoners for transport-related successes: Livingstone for the “Congestion Charge” in the city centre to substantially cut traffic, and Johnson for his cycle-hire scheme. Both of these successful initiatives have been copied by capital cities around the world, so the Mayor of London has somewhat of a global impact, and indeed spends much of his time leading trade delegations abroad for London’s benefit. Khan is thought to have attracted many voters by his promises to freeze the cost of public transport, and to tackle London’s housing crisis, driven by rising immigration and demographic changes such as the erosion of traditional family units.
In a theme that resonates well with Contending Modernities, Khan has consistently spoken of his (and everyone’s) multiple identities, in his case these being: British, European, Western, Pakistani-origin, Muslim, human rights lawyer, the son of a bus driver and a product of a working-class council estate home. Thus, Khan’s election has the potential to be hugely inspiring and empowering to “minority” or “underdog” groupings, like Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008.
Amidst the confusion and societal atomism engendered by the complexity of our modern world and its telecommunications systems, a well-functioning democracy is one way of bringing people together and giving them belonging: whatever our political and religious differences, we can legitimately say that we (collectively) elected XYZ as Mayor or other elected official, that we voted to remain within the European Union (EU) or to leave it.
Khan has spoken eloquently of the need for London to be inclusive and united, including people of all faiths and none: after his swearing-in ceremony in the presence of faith leaders at Southwark Cathedral, one of his first official engagements was to attend a Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) event, important symbolically since one of his previous organisations, the islamist-controlled Muslim Council of Britain, had boycotted HMD for many years before it finally reversed this stance. Khan has also recently moved away from questionable associates, distancing himself from the anti-semitism problems within the Labour Party and vowing to tackle extremism within Muslim communities. This allowed him to resist allegations of being soft on extremism made against him by his nearest rival, the millionaire Zac Goldsmith. (Incidentally, Zac is the brother of Jemima Khan whose ex-husband, the leading Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, campaigned for Goldsmith to become mayor.) Arguably, Goldsmith may yet have won the mayoralty, were it not for his public stated opposition to Britain remaining within the EU, a matter that will be decided by a hotly-contested UK-wide referendum just six weeks after the mayoral election.
The above example is emblematic of much wider issues: the UK has approximately 3 million Muslims, of whom roughly 40% live in London, and 40% are also, like the new mayor, of Pakistani origin. (When we add India and Bangladesh, South Asia accounts for the origin of about 70% of British Muslims). London has a large Muslim population: 8-10%. Regrettably, there has been an increase in anti-Muslim hatred in the UK over the past few years, largely driven by islamist extremism and terrorism coupled with irresponsible media coverage (the “Londonistan” effect), but the election of Khan is a powerful reminder of the inclusive outlook of Londoners, unsurprising from a truly cosmopolitan city. It also undermines the divisive, us-vs.-them rhetoric of extremists of both the far-right and islamist varieties.
Donald Trump has already reacted to Khan’s election, promising to exempt the latter from his proposed moratorium on Muslims entering the USA. Khan has responded to this, reminding us that Trump’s outrageous suggestion is not about one individual, but about millions of adherents of one of the world’s major religions.
Religion and State
Today, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, travelled to London by the Eurostar train to meet Sadiq Khan. Their two cities are consistently amongst the world’s favourite tourist destinations, and face similar challenges: unemployment, the economy, transport, housing, terrorism. British multiculturalism, with a monarchy and established church, addresses the religion-state relationship in a very different way to the laissite model of the French Republic.
Religion and civic state; national and local; modernity, identity and economy; xenophobia, islamophobia and antisemitism; family values and individualist libertarianism: amidst all of these contending factors resonating across Europe and beyond, the groundbreaking election of Sadiq Khan is a beacon of hope for our fractured societies.
In a much-loved English children’s story, a poor boy called Dick Whittington travels to find fortune in London, having heard that its streets are paved with gold. In keeping with our religious traditions of spiritual alchemy that emphasise that every human heart is capable of becoming “pure gold,” I hope that faith- and civic-communities will capitalise on this opportunity to pave London with success at many levels, and export some of that success to the wider human family.