There has never been a London mayor or politician whose religious beliefs have been at the forefront of our admiration for them, whether Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Independent. It shouldn’t matter much whether Boris showed up at his local Sunday church services or spent quiet Tuesday evenings revelling in agnosticism. Those who had voted for him were satisfied with a Conservative capital, not remotely bothered by the man’s family life and their long-standing traditions. Why should they? Secularism, the Western world agreed, offers no such place for faith-driven politics — let your God belong to you, and keep him there.
But fiction rearranges our understanding of men, state affairs, and their faith (if they have one). What it has meant for Sadiq Khan to be Muslim has depended on who is talking about it. The post-9/11 narrative of non-peaceful Muslims, on the edge of their seats for a dismembered Europe, echoed throughout Zac Goldsmith’s opposition. London would not be safe under Khan — a photograph of a bus blown apart in the 7/7 terror attack, a fearful plea to the Jewish population to consider whether they could ever be safe with him. European media remained equally obsessed. A Swiss journalist asked on radio, “Is Khan’s Pakistani origin not an obstacle? Is Pakistan not associated with fundamentalism and terror?” The interviewee responded that Pakistanis were more likely to run London corner-stores.
No matter. Where, previously, the particular and attuned needs of communities of colour remained ignored by politicians, Goldsmith would attach himself to Indian neighbourhoods in a move both condescending and completely bizarre. Here was a man who knows much better the needs of Hindus and the state of their family jewellery apparently — lest we forget, he is a keen fan of Bollywood movies (of which he can name none). Khan was not a good “moderate” Muslim, he was an extremist. Khan was not even an accomplished member of the South Asian diaspora — Goldsmith wanted that title.
Those who followed Barack Obama’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 2004 will remember the accusations that Obama was Muslim. I say “accusation” because it was not stated merely as a matter of fact; rather, it was brandished as a slur. A Muslim, many theorised, would not be capable of leading the free world in 2008. Likewise, was a black man capable of a presidential role, without falling prey to the stereotypes acknowledged by many as truths? Was the son of an immigrant even a citizen of America to begin with?
Witnesses of white supremacy will recognise the formula. There is merciless disregard for facts. There is nothing Islamophobic about drawing attention to a person’s ties to extremism, but only if the basis for doing so is substantiated beyond six-degrees of separation, and total guess-work.
“Sadiq Khan knows the grainy, multifarious life of the capital intimately”, wrote Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for the Guardian. “He is a real Londoner, and that is why he is the best choice for mayor. It matters more than his race, religion or class. Khan’s Pakistan-born father was a bus driver, his mother a seamstress. They had eight children, seven of them boys. The parents saved up to buy a home, and sent all their children to university. Khan has lived in public housing, used public transport, known deprivation, and epitomises urban aspiration.” She is absolutely right. The best kind of mayor for London is a Londoner. And one who can speak with us of shared memories of Peckham barber-shops, and Turkish snooker-halls, of a kind of London patois that moves cross-racially and between generations. Boris was never this. Nor is Zac Goldsmith. Perhaps they knew this when the Tory Party launched such an offensive.
But remember that religion and race are employed selectively. What was inescapable in the reporting and opposition of Sadiq Khan (and also of Obama) will be erased and disregarded as something irrelevant — a statement, a thing that just “happens to be” — in his victory. We don’t celebrate our politicians for being white, so why go on about the ones who happen to be black? We didn’t congratulate our mayors for being Christian, or atheist, so why honour those who happen to be Muslim?
Where it should not have mattered that Khan is Muslim now very much matters. Had Khan not won it would have been likely that every parallel drawn between him, extremism, and terrorist-apologism had been believed. This is the all too real narrative attached to Muslims, where many outside the community in the last decade have not been able to accept it as fabrication. It has mattered that London has stepped away from the trap, distanced itself from believing the racism that has plagued Muslim communities across Europe and America for so many years.
Of course there are immigrants, Muslims, people of colour, who are not by default socialists, Labour supporters, or fans of Khan. The beauty of being allowed to exist as fully dimensional means there is no one way of thinking that transcends a community. Khan may not represent a win for all Muslims, nor should he. It is reductive to give one person a status that has simply nothing to do with their (yet to be seen) capabilities.
But it matters, not for him, but for us as a society, that Khan is Muslim. Crucially, where it matters now, would, as Albhai-Brown writes, “demolish the extremists’ anti-western narrative. If a Muslim can be elected by millions of voters of all backgrounds…how would the jihadis – how could they – carry on believing and arguing that we Muslims have no future in Europe, or that westerners hate us?”
Such a triumph does things to our young. Just as Muslim children have been affected by the audacious rhetoric and defamation of their religion and parent’s homelands by their own government, they will also be heartened by this new picture. One where Muslims and immigrants are included, successful, and celebrated.
It matters that Khan is Muslim, as much as it matters that his father was a bus driver. That is to say, it is not relevant, and yet entirely important. What Parliament has always lacked is true representation of the people it governs. What Parliament has always lacked is people that look like us, whatever form “us” takes. The most wonderful London has always been that of bus-drivers’ sons, and immigration, of pub karaoke nights in working-class areas, and the sense that no matter how much desperate prejudice tries to take hold, we trust our neighbours enough to know it’s simply not true.
Chimene Suleyman is a writer from London of Turkish / Middle Eastern heritage. She writes opinion pieces, contributing to The Independent as well as regularly featured writing for online blog and events organiser Poejazzi. She has represented the UK at the International Biennale, Rome 2011 with spoken word. Her poetry collection “Outside Looking On” published by Influx Press is out now. She collects photos of Canary Wharf. Find her on Twitter: @chimenesuleyman
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