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.
Beyond British Islamophobia?: The Election of Sadiq Khan
At the public of the Contending Modernities project at a Notre Dame alumni event in New York in Fall 2010, I described to someone in the audience the research on that I had begun as a visiting fellow at the . My fellow audience member, a British national, listened as I described the part of the project that involved comparison of British and French approaches to the integration of Muslim immigrants in their societies, with particular reference to a then–prevailing view that the British were doing it better than the French—that theirs was a “kinder and gentler” integration. At that point, my interlocutor stated emphatically and in a low tone suggestive of prophecies and portents, “Don’t let anyone tell you that the British are kinder and gentler to their immigrants than the French. They’re not!”
More recent events, such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 and the bombings in Paris in November 2015, as well as the bombings in Belgium (France’s partially French neighbor) at the Brussels airport and Maalbeck metro station on March 22, 2016, turned attention to Europe’s French regions, even as Britain was debating the “” that would separate it even more definitively from its European neighbors. At the , terrorism researchers and attributed the Sunni radicalization underlying both the French and Belgian bombings to in what they described as a “French connection” or “Francophone effect.”
Against this backdrop of problems affecting its Francophonic neighbors, London’s election of to be its mayor provided a triumphal, feel-good moment for proponents of the “Britain is better” school of comparative integration studies. Khan is the son of Pakistani immigrants, in a working-class council flat, and was the fifth of eight children born to his father, a bus driver, and his mother, who worked as a seamstress. After earning a degree in law and embarking on a career as a human rights lawyer, he rose through the political ranks of the Labour Party in a succession of local, national, and ministerial positions to his recent victory. It is a striking turn of events in a Europe that is elsewhere being roiled by right-wing nationalism and Islamophobia, especially in response to the influx of immigrants generated by the crisis in Syria in Iraq.
It could have been otherwise. Britain is no stranger to problems of integration, which it was forced to confront in the 7/7 bombings of 2005. Three of the four were British-born sons of Pakistani immigrants—the terrorism was thus “.” The bombings prompted much national debate, such that upon turning on the television in my hotel room during a spring trip to London in May of 2006, the very first thing that this visitor heard was a heated debate over proposal to teach “” in schools. The proposal was widely perceived by Britain’s Muslim community, including its large British Pakistani community, as being a particularly heavy-handed integration effort aimed at them.
There have also been more recent tensions around Britain’s Pakistani Muslims. In a manner satirized to great effect in the dark comedy “,” Britain has, with other countries, been a sending country of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. The most notorious of these was Mohammed Emwazi, better known as “,” one of four British jihadis known as the “Beatles,” who delivered excoriations against the West in an East London accent while beheading Westerners in what quickly became a distinctive genre of bloody ISIS videos. In 2014, there were revelations in international headlines about white, working-class girls in the English town of being gang-raped by gangs of Pakistani men in incidents that were said to be known to the authorities, but overlooked out of a perverse political correctness in the face of a multicultural ideal. One of the most notorious recruiters for ISIS, implicated in the flight of three girls from in East London, has been , a Scottish daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who has radicalized young Muslim women to join ISIS as jihadi brides.
It is important to highlight, in a context in which many still accuse the global Muslim community of silence and complacency in the face of radicalization and jihadism, the important role that Britain’s Muslim community has played in combating radicalization and violent extremism. Last year, I had the great privilege of team-teaching a course on “Religion and Conflict,” put on by the for a group of European and Middle Eastern diplomats and government officials gathered in Pristina, Kosovo. One of my teaching colleagues was of Britain’s , which has been a leader in the effort to counter radicalization among Britain’s young Muslim population. A Cambridge-educated astronomer and imam who memorized the Qur’an by the age of eleven, Hasan also became radicalized at university and briefly took part in the “jihad” against Communist forces in Afghanistan in 1990-1991. In presentations to the course, akin to the lectures that he has delivered widely in Britain and elsewhere in the Muslim world, Hasan spoke movingly and compellingly of his experiences of marginalization, otherness, and in some cases outright racism growing up in Britain. It was clear from his account that in comparison to the more recent stories of ISIS jihadis from Europe and elsewhere in the Muslim world, including the United States, when it comes to immigrant integration and religious pluralism, Britain is no kinder or gentler than anywhere else.
This framework of radicalization, extremism, and terror may seem a grim background to be celebrating the election of to be the Mayor of London and, indeed, the first Muslim mayor of a Western capital. But it is a necessary one in order to appreciate the importance and the potential of the moment. The burden of being a demographic “first” is never an easy one, especially for “firsts” that are laden with social, cultural, and political symbolism—for that we can observe the many trials, tribulations, and, at times, the missed opportunities of the presidency of in the United States. But in light of recent and past history, the election of Sadiq Khan to the mayor’s seat is a signal event, carrying the possibility for London and for Britain to be at its best in addressing ongoing challenges of integration—combating , , and .