FARHANA HAQUE RAHMAN | 17 MAY, 2016
ROME (IPS): Sadiq Khan is not just the new mayor of London, but happens to have individually won more votes than any other politician in British history.
Prime ministers and members of Parliament run in their home districts, where the total number of ballots are fewer.
Municipal elections don’t always draw global interest, but London is London, and what the world’s pundits and media has said, and as a result what the bulk of public opinion has heard, is that Mr. Khan is a Muslim, born to a family whose ancestral roots are in Pakistan. The general reaction to a Muslim mayor of London is, thankfully, one of praise for the city’s cosmopolitan spirit and tolerance. Abroad, the tone has been one of great respect, with a few spoonfuls of feigned envy.
Other points could have been made about a vote in which the Labour Party, which last won the general elections 11 years ago, dislodged the Conservatives in the U.K.’s largest city. There’s plenty to muse over the fact that Mr. Khan does not appear entirely on the same page as Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s new national leader. And then there’s the detail about how Mr. Khan grew up in council housing to parents who worked as a bus driver and a seamstress, went on to become a lawyer and a member of Parliament, and whose victory speech included the assertion that: “I want every single Londoner to get the opportunities that our city gave to me and my family.”
Or there are the photographs, now viral and appearing in the Times of India, of Mr. Khan visiting the Shri Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, wearing a flower garland and with a red bindi dot on his forehead. How frequent are such interdenominational visits in the rest of the world?
On top of that, Mr. Khan voted for the Same-Sex Marriage act, for which he was subject to menacing fatwas from local Islamic clergy. As noted by an editorial in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest newspaper: “The plain truth is that Sadiq Khan would not have survived in Pakistan, not as a Muslim and not as a non-Muslim.”
Why, in short, does it even register what faith London’s new mayor may profess? One might add that saying “Muslim” is not very informative, given the multiplicity of interpretation of Islam.
Perhaps it should be made standard practice to emphatically mention the religions adhered to by all public figures. That could get difficult. Was Spinoza, the philosopher, a Jew? It’s widely said he was but he was excommunicated in no uncertain terms. Or what about George W. Bush? He was brought up Episcopal but converted to Methodism – does that explain some of his political views? Or Angela Merkel, the one major politician to have openly declared that she is an atheist. Should that adjective be mentioned every time she is?
While such identity tags may carry useful information, they are all divisive by nature. That may be important, as many wars have been fought in the name of religion. But Mr. Khan doesn’t seem interested in fighting any such battles.
And he was baited, notably by the billionaire Conservative candidate he battled, Zac Goldsmith, whose campaign sought out “Hindu-sounding surnames” for a direct-mail effort aimed at sparking fear of Islam. Some say Zac is Jewish, although his mother was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Other politicians have mentioned their religion; Ed Miliband said he wanted to be Britain’s first Jewish prime minister. Others say he can’t, as Benjamin Disraeli held the post in the 19th century. Disraeli, however, was a baptized and practising Anglican. More importantly, Miliband didn’t become prime minister at all.
There is a feel-good sentiment for many when someone from a minority group wins an election. The U.S. media duly noted recently when elections in Hawaii sent Mazie Hironi, a Japanese-born woman who practises the Jodo Shinshu strand of Buddhism, to the Senate and Tulsi Gabbard, to Congress. Gabbard, born to a Samoan Catholic father , a veteran who served in Iraq, practises Hinduism, a religion to which her mother converted. Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh men have held elected office in Washington for more than half a century.
It’s probably mostly benign in intent, spun by the chattering class in hopes of sounding modern and convincing the indigenous masses to get with the program. But maybe not. Consider Barack Obama, who is identified far more by the colour of his absent father’s skin than his Kansas-born mother’s. His religion is regularly called into question, along with his birth certificate and anything his adversaries can latch onto.
Hailing Mr. Khan’s Islamic faith may begin as well-meaning but degrades over time into something more sinister. IPS’ founder Roberto Savio recently wrote an eloquent warning of how Islamophobia is used as a political tool. His point is that it is a proxy for xenophobia, an old propaganda trick. But that’s just it: London’s new mayor is guilty of numerous offences he’s a Liverpool fan, for example, and admits that some of his campaign staff had been born in Yorkshire – but he is not a foreigner.
Immigration exists, and is obviously on people’s minds, not only in the affluent West. But it is rarely religion that is the worry; language barriers, unemployment and other forces – including kinship networks are more likely the reason for confusion and fear. Indeed, the U.K. Electoral Commission published a report in 2015 looking at why some communities – Pakistani and Bangladeshi in particular – might be vulnerable to electoral fraud due to internal patriarchal cultural patterns. Such situations are cause for concern, but instead of coded dog-whistling to stoke individual and collective phobias – one case in London involved a very prominent conservative intentionally failing to distinguish between “Islamic state” and “an Islamic state” — public chastising of those who seek to exploit them are in order.
That’s especially the case with highly multicultural populations, and not just in London. Hamtramck, a township near Detroit, Michigan, used to be 90% Polish and as of this year has a majority-Muslim city council – with stronger policing being high on the municipal wish list. But the population no longer has a dominant ethnicity, with the two largest groups, Bangladeshis and Yemenis, accounting for less than half the formerly dominant Poles once did and more than 30 languages are spoken in local schools. The Muslim call to prayer is broadcast from public loudspeakers, but that decision was made almost 15 years ago in a unanimous vote after a compromise was reached on when the noise could be made.
It was another politician from a faraway state– of Asian origin, for the record – who referred to the town as a hotbed of radicalism that other faraway people fear.
(INTER PRESS SERVICE)