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.
The New Monarchist Mayor of London seems to be a Muslim
Sadiq Khan, born in 1970 to a family of Pakistani immigrants, has just been elected the new Mayor of London.
His late father, Amanullah Khan, was a bus driver, his mother, Sehrun, a seamstress. He grew up in low-income housing, as , in “a cramped three-bedroomed house on the Henry Prince Estate in Earlsfield, south-west London, sharing a bunk bed with one of his brothers until he left home in his 20s.” The new mayor’s parents were recent immigrants. “Amanullah and Sehrun Khan emigrated from Pakistan to London shortly before Sadiq was born, in 1970. He was the fifth of their eight children—seven sons and a daughter.”
Mr. Khan studied law at the University of North London, where he specialized in human rights, and is married to Saadiya Ahmed, who is also a lawyer. They have two daughters, Anisah and Ammarah.
My first and foremost thoughts when I read the news were drawn to his working-class immigrant parents: to his father Amanullah and every single bus stop he approached to pick up and let out passengers to make a decent living for his family, to his mother Sehrun and every single stitch she ran through a garment with her sewing machine to help raise her family.
This is not to disregard the significant fact that Mr. Khan seems, like the rest of us, to don a particular shade of being a Muslim. Yes, Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London, is a Muslim too: the first Muslim mayor of a major European capital born and raised to an immigrant Pakistani family. Writing from a city over which now towers prominently the figure of the xenophobic, racist, misogynist Donald Trump and his relentless fear-mongering against Mexicans and Muslims as “rapists” and “terrorists,” who respectively take advantage and hate “us,” this aspect of Mr. Khan’s immigrant provenance matters too.
There is no doubt the election of Sadiq Khan as the new Mayor of London is a momentous occasion, a shock to the xenophobic fear-mongering flooding Europe from the UK to Greece.
But at the same time I thought we should not fetishize the fact that he is a Muslim, but far more importantly celebrate the tenacity of a working-class immigrant family to raise a child to have the audacity to dare to imagine himself running a magnificent city. His Muslim background and demeanor, his and his family’s Muslim names, his use of a copy of the Qur’an in his official ceremonies, all come together to signal a significant symbolic register in European self-consciousness: Muslims are here, and are here to stay.
The Making of a Muslim Monarchist
Prompted by friends on my Facebook page when I first shared my first impressions of this news, I began to read more about the new Mayor of London, and here things got splendidly more complicated.
The first thing I learned was the nasty campaign of fear and loathing that the new Mayor’s Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith had led against him, associating him with acts of extremism and violence perpetrated by Muslims in London and elsewhere in Europe. We learned that the even the UK Prime Minister David Cameron had sent letters to the British citizens of Indian origin stoking Hindu-Muslim hostilities to prevent Sadiq Khan from becoming the new mayor.
“The prime minister has been criticized,” I read in , “for sending out letters targeted at London’s Gujarati Hindu and Punjabi Sikh voters, calling on them to back the Conservative mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith.” The letters from David Cameron suggest Goldsmith is the only sensible choice as mayor for London’s south Asian communities, at a time when we need “to be keeping our streets safe from terrorist attacks.”
Wow, I thought. Was this not what David Cameron’s ancestors did in India before partition, fomenting Hindu-Muslim and other sectarian hostilities to stay in power. Are we really in a “postcolonial” period if that “post” is supposed to mean beyond the pale of coloniality?
The venomous smear campaign against Sadiq Khan went beyond the Tories, and even more monstrous dimensions in the far-right racist Britain First Party that published frightful video clips warning voters against the Muslim contender. The white supremacist Europe was up in arms.
Muslims Have Arrived
But Mr. Khan himself was now also revealed to be not so much an innocent victim of such chicanery and in fact a street-smart politician “baptized” in the fire, as it were, of British politics and all its nastiness.
As his prospect of becoming the Mayor of London had become more serious, he had begun a series of strategic moves to placate his opposition. He moved emphatically, according to reports, to the BDS movement, a non-violent act of civil disobedience initiated by the Palestinian civil society, himself an enthused and teary-eyed monarchist, and had distanced himself from his party leader Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to sing the UK national Anthem “God Save the Queen.”
The more we read about the new London mayor the more we realize he is a shrewd politician, a man, a Muslim man to be sure, who wants to be the mayor, and just like Barack Obama before him in the US he too has learned fast and he plays smoothly. In a piece for the , “How Sadiq Khan won the London mayoral election,” we read:
Having run to Tessa Jowell’s left in Labor’s selection contest (trading on his opposition to the Iraq war, the welfare reform bill and his nomination of Jeremy Corbyn), he swiftly made a centrist pitch to the electorate at large. He would, he repeatedly declared, be “the most pro-business mayor ever”. Milibandite policies such as the 50p tax rate and the “mansion tax” were disowned. In a defining interview with the Mail on Sunday a week after his selection, Khan ruthlessly distanced himself from Corbyn, condemning his failure to sing the national anthem and presciently warning of Labor’s “anti-Jewish” image. He went on to make just two public appearances with his party’s leader and was listed in the “hostile” group of MPs.
The new Muslim Mayor of London, in short, is a Zionist monarchist by political expediency, a natural political careerist, a shrewd lawyer, and as all of those a true inhabitant of the British parliamentary politics. He did or did not choose his adversaries carefully. He became like them.
Yes, he is a Muslim, but above all a British politician Muslim, and by extension a European Muslim: a Muslim who uses his immigrant background to his advantage without allowing it to damage his political career, precisely the same way Obama selected his father’s “color” and his mother’s “faith” to engineer an expedient political persona for himself.
As a politician, Sadiq Khan represents a different gestation of Muslims immigrants than the ones who are now running away from the murder and mayhem in Iraq and Syria, seeking haven in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and with a small segment managing to get themselves to Europe.
As evident in the boldly racist Conservative and Britain First campaigning against Sadiq Khan, the fear-mongering against Muslims is perfectly alive and well in the UK. Furthermore, targeting Khan marks a clear indication that both the Islamophobia and xenophobia of the Tories (on one side) and the monarchism and Zionism of Sadiq Khan (on the other) are all integral to the British politics, which the new Mayor of London has mastered the hard way from his early youth. An Islamic iconography of power (for and against Muslims) is now in full display in European politics.
Sadiq Khan denounces the BDS and distances himself from the far more principled and progressive politics of Jeremy Corbyn with the same tenacity that Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron would use Islamophobic fear-mongering and the Hindu-Muslim divide against him. Sadiq Khan, Zac Goldsmith, and David Cameron are cut from the same political cloth. They authenticate each other. The offspring of the working-class Pakistani immigrants stages his politics the way he speaks his English, with his carefully cadenced, neighborly accent: fast, furious, street-smart, outmaneuvering the elitist white establishment that has systemically ostracized him, from his childhood, to his youth, to his political ambitions.
While Sadiq Khan represents the generation of Muslims who have assimilated their identity politics back to the overriding politics of their city and country, visionary and far more courageous statesmen like Corbyn in the UK (or Sanders in the US) have overcome their European identity politics to imagine a world beyond their manufactured borders.
Muslims, in short, have in Mr. Khan arrived in the UK and EU politics, part and parcel of the same nasty politicking for power. Before and beyond Mr. Khan’s careerism for power stand his parental generation of migrant laborers and the current wave of migrants and refuges facing a European site of xenophobic resistance that now includes Muslims too. European Muslims like Sadiq Khan have made it as lawyers, businessmen, and politicians. Their distant “cousins” as new arrivals from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria are too close for their comfort. They will do everything they can to keep them “back home” if their arrival will compromise their political ambitions.
Remaining true to the logic of his political careerism, Mr. Khan will use the memory of his “bus driver father” the same way Barack Obama used the racialized identity of his father and the faith of his mother to position himself as a black and a Christian candidate.
There is a serious lesson in this fact for European and US Muslims. At what point will their identity politics yield to a progressive ethics of responsibility that will actively side with the Christian Corbyn and Jewish Sanders against and beyond the accident of all our births, and thus unite in fighting against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism—above them both hovering the hysterical fear-mongering and callous bigotry of all sorts–to move toward a liberation beyond all pales of identity politics?
It will take generations of Sadiq Khans before the British Muslim population would produce a Jeremy Corbyn from their midst, or US Muslims a Sanders. For now the political rectitude of a public intellectual like Tariq Ali to Corbyn would mirror that of the late Iqbal Ahmad to Bernie Sanders in the US to keep us all on the right track. Until then, for this Muslim, I would take the Christian Corbyn and the Jewish Sanders over the new Mayor of London Mr. Sadiq Khan any day of the week, and twice on any given Sabbath.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written over 25 books, edited 4, and contributed chapters to many more. An internationally renowned cultural critic and award-winning author, his books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, Danish, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan. A selected sample of his writing is co-edited by Andrew Davison and Himadeep Muppidi, The World is my Home: A Hamid Dabashi Reader (Transaction, 2010). His most recent work includes Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Harvard, 2011), The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (Zed, 2012), Corpus Anarchicum: Political Protest, Suicidal Violence, and the Making of the Posthuman Body (Palgrave 2012), Being A Muslim in the World (Palgrave 2013), and Can Non-Europeans Think? (Zed, 2015).