By Maajid Nawaz
It’s a piece of history. London has gained her first Muslim mayor, a fellow Pakistani-Brit. And though being Muslim bears absolutely no relevance to how Sadiq Khan intends to run London—for Islam is as ambivalent on the difficulties of London’s housing crisis as it is on the human gene sequence—his religion has become relevant.
In successfully integrating their Muslim residents, London, the United Kingdom, Europe, and the wider West have been going through something of an identity crisis.
Islamist Muslims who insist that humanity can only be judged by how Muslim it is, and anti-Muslim bigots who insist that humanity can only be judged by how Muslim it isn’t, have made Islam relevant.
The Regressive Left in Sadiq Khan’s Labour Party, and the Populist Right among Trump’s Republicans have made Islam a hot topic. The only way Islam will cease being an issue is when everyone, Muslim or not, is deemed to share the same rights, and is held to the very same liberal expectations.
Until then, discrimination will continue to feed the poisonous tribalism fueling modern identity politics. This applies whether that discrimination comes in the form of right-wing anti-Muslim bigotry, or in the form of the left-wing bigotry of low expectations that holds Muslims to lesser, illiberal standards. Until these twin bigotries are dealt with, Sadiq Khan’s religious affiliation will, sadly, remain a topic of debate.
In this way, the victory of London’s new mayor as a non-Islamist Muslim is as much a blow to Islamist bigots as it is to anti-Muslim bigots. This victory speaks to the possibilities of integration. It offers hope for our country’s new immigrant families. And as a symbol of social mobility, it provides aspiration to those from humble backgrounds.
Sadiq Khan’s victory is probably the only bit of good news Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left-led Labour Party can truly celebrate this weekend. And celebrate they should. Democracy has spoken. With it, a torn city might be able to begin healing the old wounds of identity and religion re-opened by the muddy campaign to get Khan elected, and the muddy campaign that opposed him.
These muddy campaigns were in fact a microcosm of the identity problems plaguing modern Europe. Is London’s new mayor an Islamist? This question drove a political pendulum swing to both extremes at the expense of a genuine conversation that really needs to be had.
I’ve known Sadiq Khan since 2002 when he was my lawyer while I served as an Islamist political prisoner in Egypt, before he became a Member of Parliament. I’m forever indebted to him for visiting me in Mazra Tora prison, while the world gave up on me.
Due to this history, many in the press asked me for my view on the veracity of the “Islamist” allegations surrounding the new mayor, but I refused to make my views known until after the elections. Yes, this conversation needed to be had, but I preferred to have it only when the tribalisms of left and right, of Muslim and non-Muslim, were left firmly at the door. Election season made that almost impossible.
Sadiq Khan is no Muslim extremist. And it is not only his track record voting for gay rights that proves this. Having known him when I was a Muslim extremist, I know that he did not subscribe to my then-theocratic views.
Many conservatives who desperately opposed Khan jumped the shark when they called him a “radical Islamist,” and linked him to sensationalist headlines that declared he had a “hardcore Islamist past.” Nuance is the friend of truth.
On the other hand many Muslims, and those on the left, preferred to bury their heads in the sand, chastising anyone who dared to challenge Khan on his past Islamist relationships, as “racists.” See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. The Regressive Left’s overuse of the word racism on such matters is as unhelpful as the Populist Right’s overuse of the word “extremist.”
It is as racist to ask these questions, and to have this conversation, as it was when Londoners questioned the white, non-Muslim former Labour mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, about his links to Islamists, or when the press question the white, non-Muslim Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the maverick white politician George Galloway over their ties to extremists.
In other words it’s not racist at all, as Atma Singh—Labour’s own South-Asian Affairs advisor to a former mayor of London—points out. To imply that it is, and to hold Sadiq Khan to a lesser standard than his white colleagues merely because he is a brown Muslim, is the very bigotry of low expectations that fuels identity politics even further. Alongside the environment, extremism is one of the most pressing issues of our day. Of course it will come up in an election campaign.
And in deference to the seriousness of the subject, and the lives lost over it, what came up about Khan’s alleged links to extremists is pertinent. Those questions needed to be asked. I cannot emphasize enough that I write as a liberal, who voted for a Liberal Democrat in this race, and not as a conservative. So now that the election is over, and London has its first Muslim mayor, let us step back and consider the smoke to this conservative fire.
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