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 recent London mayoral election was never going to be a run-of-the-mill poll, no matter what the gadflies might have told us about Muslims having a long history of running Western cities. Not in this moment, in which Muslims figure in Western public opinion as a threat to civilizational order near and far. On the contrary, coming just one day after Donald Trump’s rise as presumptive Republican nominee for the Presidency of the United States, the election of Sadiq Khan, son of working-class Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim, could only have been an exceptional moment. Against a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, Khan’s rise to the top job in London’s City Hall appears to refute the politics of fear in Europe and America.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Khan’s seemingly exceptional status has featured prominently in the media’s coverage of his campaign and election victory.
The New York Times headline, for example, declared, “Sadiq Khan Elected in London, Becoming Its First Muslim Mayor.” Further down, the report drew the contrast with Trump’s rise, quoting Khan as saying he hoped the presumptive Republican nominee “loses badly.” British media headlines took a different tack, stressing the importance of Khan’s victory to the Labour Party in what was otherwise a less-than-stellar performance by Labour candidates, nationally. Nevertheless, the opening lines of both the BBC and Guardian articles highlighted Khan’s Muslim identity. The Guardian, especially, noted that Khan’s stunning success was a powerful counter to the “scaremongering” campaign of Conservative Party challenger Zac Goldsmith, who attempted to link Khan to extremist Muslim organizations.
The implicit meaning of this media framing has been hard to miss. As a Muslim, Khan, through his victory, ironically rescues the beleaguered secular-liberal value of tolerance, or, in the context of London, “cosmopolitanism,” a notion that makes toleration—in terms of an implicit acceptance of difference and inter-cultural solidarity—its ethical core. Notably, Khan has been able to perform this salvific role only so long as he has convincingly affirmed and embodied tolerance in this cosmopolitan sense. He has done so pitch-perfectly, stating, “I will be a mayor for all Londoners.” In an interview preceding the poll, he sought to press this point with the voters by underscoring the centrality of the city to his identity. In response to a question about his Islamic religious commitment, he stated: “It’s part of who I am—that’s the best way of describing it, because I’ve been asked this a lot. We all have multiple identities: I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool fan, I’m Labour, I’m Fabian and I’m Muslim.”
Khan buries “Muslim” in this self-description. The identifier comes dead last in his long list of other self-conceptions. Yet, in a moment in which the Islamic State has dominated headlines, “Muslim,” not Londoner, which heads Khan’s list of descriptors, is the crucial term; and it hardly surprises that the global media has lifted it to prominence.
The other identifiers matter, too: they render Muslim a metonym of the cosmopolitan norm. This “Muslim” exists seamlessly alongside other identities. It stands for irenic integration. And, it stands against that other “Muslim”—the one emblematic of terror and intolerance. The London election provides the mechanism for this inversion by endowing the Muslim-as-cosmopolitan with the authority of a landslide. Londoners have overwhelmingly chosen to believe, and to affirm, that Khan the Muslim is who he says he is—a Londoner first and foremost. But it is his Muslim identity, and the current moment of fear and rising anti-Muslim bigotry, that lends his elevation to London’s mayoralty its deep resonance, especially among secular liberals worried about the erosion of tolerance.
The euphoria, therefore, that has greeted Khan’s victory, especially among secular liberals and the left, is understandable. Still, the perception that Khan’s election strikes a blow for cosmopolitanism is fraught. The victory certainly signals one major metropolis’s rejection of xenophobic politics. It hardly means, however, that racism toward Muslims is at an end. The Trump campaign, if nothing else, serves as a sobering reminder of the virulence that anti-Muslim bigotry has attained within the political mainstream.
Another potential danger lies in emphasizing Khan’s Muslim identity above all else. As a long-time friend put it in a social media post:
It’s a pity that the fact he is Muslim is taking up so much space in the media. Wouldn’t it be better to underscore that here is a guy with a working class background from an ethnic minority who has been elected as a mayor? In what he has been saying until now after his election it seems to me he is doing everything he can to stress that he is London’s mayor—first and foremost. Is it helpful to him in his new task to stress that he is Muslim in the headlines? Would it be important for me to know when dealing with him if I were his employee in City Hall? The information [about his religion] belongs further down in the text together with number of kids and his wife’s profession.
In other words, by emphasizing his Muslim identity, the media implicitly contradict Khan’s claim that he is a Londoner above any other possible affiliation he might have. The danger here is that for cosmopolitan toleration to work difference must not emerge as distinctive but rather must become the unspoken norm. Trumpeting Khan’s Muslim identity cuts in the opposite direction: it reinforces Muslim exceptionality and in so doing undermines Muslim inclusion within the taken-for-granted order of life.
The rendering of Islam and Muslims unremarkable in the putative West remains an elusive end. Fifteen years since the September 11th attacks, anti-Muslim racism continues to spike. Yet, as they further establish their presence, and as the second and third generations assert themselves as full participants in the national community, especially, Muslims will likely shed their exceptional status. For now, Sadiq Khan is London’s “first elected Muslim mayor.” Soon, however, he may become, simply, London’s mayor, who happens to be Muslim—assuming we care anymore to remember that fact.
Loren Lybarger is Associate Professor of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University, with research interests and specialties including Islamic religion, comparative Islamist movements, comparative fundamentalisms, religion and nationalism, and Middle Eastern Christianity. His most recent book is Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories.