Last week, London elected its first ever Muslim mayor. Sadiq Khan, the son of working-class Pakistani immigrants, triumphed over a Conservative challenger who controversially attempted to implicate Khan with connections to Islamist extremists. The attacks — considered by many to be ill-judged smears — proved futile, and Khan is now the mayor of Europe’s largest capital and one of the world’s most diverse and important cities.
His victory comes at a fascinating, tense moment. Britain is poised to hold a referendum next month on its membership in the European Union. Those eager to sever ties with Brussels are, in part, motivated by fear of immigration and Islamist infiltration. Boris Johnson, the boisterous politician Khan replaced as London’s mayor, has become one of the biggest backers of what’s known as the “Brexit” movement.
In the build-up to the mayoral election, Khan warned against the dangers of the nativist populism that’s gripped countries on both sides of the pond. He described this impulse in an interview with The Washington Post’s Karla Adam as the “Donald Trump approach to politics,” explaining that “it seeks to divide communities rather than unite them.”
And he went on to convey what he thought was the symbolism behind his own political success: London exemplified the virtues of a multicultural, democratic society, a place where “the fact that you might be a son of immigrants, or [from] a poor background, or ethnic or religious minority, isn’t held against you, because you are respected for who you are and what you put in.”
Trump, for his part, indicated last week that he would support the Brexit; he earlier left many Londoners bemused and infuriated when he claimed that there were parts of the city that were so “radicalized” that even the police feared to patrol there.
Khan’s own particular story — he’s the son of a bus driver and grew up to be a human rights lawyer then a Labor politician — was subsumed by the focus on his faith. In his interview with The Post, he quipped about the problems his religious identity would pose should the presumptive Republican nominee win the U.S. presidential election.
“I’ll need to rush to come to America before November because if Trump wins, I’ll be banned from coming,” Khan joked.
In subsequent interviews after his victory, he made similar remarks.
“If Donald Trump becomes the president I’ll be stopped from going there by virtue of my faith,” Khan told Time magazine in a story published Monday. The full conversation included his oft-repeated vow to “be the British Muslim that defeats the extremists, defeats the radicals.”
He also suggested that, as in London, U.S. voters would not ultimately side with the politics of division:
I think Bill de Blasio is doing interesting housing stuff in New York, Rahm Emanuel is doing interesting stuff with the infrastructure bank in Chicago. I want to go to America to meet with and engage with American mayors. If Donald Trump becomes the president I’ll be stopped from going there by virtue of my faith, which means I can’t engage with American mayors and swap ideas. Conservative tacticians thought those sort of tactics would win London and they were wrong. I’m confident that Donald Trump’s approach to politics won’t win in America.
Some commentators are echoing Khan’s rhetoric. Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, highlighted Khan’s victory as a rejoinder to the fear and anger marshaled by Trump and his ilk. Khan’s election, he argued, “underscores the fact that terrorist acts hide a million quiet success stories among European Muslim communities.”
It also reflected something larger about democratic politics in the 21st century.
“Sadiq Khan’s victory is reassuring because he represents currents in the world — toward global identity and integration — that will prove stronger over time than the tribalism and nativism of Trump,” Cohen wrote.
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