Politics and elections in democratic countries can throw up many interesting scenarios and surprising outcomes. For example, the political climate in the United States over the last months, as presented by a very enthusiastic media, has certainly caused many in the the world to be transfixed on what is happening there, and the many twists and turns as the race for the White House gets closer to elections in November.
And just last week, there was an historic moment for Londoners when, in the elections for mayor of that very famous city, a son of a poor immigrant from Pakistan was elected in a landslide victory. Sadiq Khan beat out his rival Zac Goldsmith for the prestigious position of Mayor of London.
London is an iconic, historic capital regarded as a leading global city and the world’s most visited, as measured by international arrivals. With a population of over eight million people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and languages, the City of London has a budget of around 17 billion pounds sterling (some BDS$49 billion).
What is historic and significant in the election of the new Mayor of London? Apart from his background as a son of a Pakistani immigrant who grew up in impoverished circumstances, the media is making much of the fact that he is the first Muslim to be elected to that post. This simple fact seems to dominate all major headlines regarding this election.
Leading up to the elections, Mr Khan’s rivals also sought to use this fact, but in a very negative way. They accused him of links to terrorists and support for terrorism. It became a very nasty campaign and one that ended being bitterly fought. Notwithstanding the bitter and Islamophobic attacks on him, Sadiq Khan would yet have a landslide victory.
What I find interesting is how a simple fact can turn into a major point of reference. Mr Khan’s religion does not take centre stage for him in his politics. His faith is by the way. He is a politician who happens to be a Muslim just like his rival Mr Goldsmith happens to be a Jew.
The media doesn’t make light of Mr Goldsmith faith as a Jew. Several news headlines across the globe made it a point to state the religious identity of the new mayor. Examples: Britain’s First Muslim Mayor, First Muslim Mayor . . . and The Washington Post’s London Voters Elect First Muslim Mayor Of Major Western Capital.
This reporting has certainly played up Mr Khan’s religious identity and as a result has fascinated and perhaps stunned the world. Many have taken to social media for and against, and once more the rhetoric has started with reference to Islam and Muslims. Following these stories one finds that Mr Khan’s faith does not influence his political views and, in fact, several have argued that some of his positions as a politician are against Islamic principles.
Noteworthy is that Mr Khan himself wrote, when he was an MP, the following: “I did not come into Parliament to be a Muslim MP. And I have never set myself up as a Muslim spokesperson or community leader. Just as ordinary citizens have multiple identities, so do MPs.”
So why the fascination with Mr Khan being a Muslim?
It is not the first for a European city, as some reports would have us believe. There have been mayors who were Muslim of other European cities, both in our modern times and in the past centuries.
Juan Cole, in his piece London’s Muslim Mayor Is Nothing New: 1,300 Years Of Muslims Who Ran Major European Cities, writes: “Islam is a major European religion and is a nearly 1,300-year-old tradition there. Sitting elected Muslim mayors include Erion Veliaj of Tirana, Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, and Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina. Muslim-majority Sarajevo elected Ivo Komšić, a Christian, in 2013.
“Going back into history, parts of Spain, and often quite a lot of it, were under Muslim rule –– 711 to 1492. So, for example, Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed Emir of Cordoba in 756. We’re talking major Western European city here.
“In the 900s, Cordoba was the most populous city in the world. The Arab Muslim emirate of Sicily lasted from 831 to 1072. For example, Jafar al-Kalbi (983-985) was emir of Sicily, and therefore Mayor of Palermo, the capital.
“The Ottoman Empire ruled most of what is now Greece (1458-1832). I think Athens counts as a major European city. It was under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years. The Ottomans ruled much of Hungary (1541-1699), and Buda (half of the later twin city of Budapest) was the capital of this province of the empire. While there, the Ottomans supported the Protestant movement in Hungary.
“Abdurrahman Abdi Pasha, the Albanian, for example, became the military governor of Buda in 1682. Budapest has to count as a major European city. Serbia was under Ottoman rule 1402 to 1878 (later in that period as a vassal); for instance, Hacı Mustafa Aga was appointed the military governor of Belgrade in July, 1793.”
The fascination with Muslims in the political public sphere is extraordinary. Donald Trump has certainly made it a pivotal point on his platform with his calls for banning Muslims from entering the United States to his calls for surveillance of Muslim communities. And we can’t forget the ridiculous proposition that President Barack Obama is a closet Muslim –– as though being a Muslim prevents an American from becoming president.
History has taught us that groups of persons have always been scapegoats for those finding comfort in their established positions. In the past, Catholics, Irish, Jews, Communists, Socialists, Blacks and other ideologies, faiths and races have had their fair share of discrimination when coming in the public arena. With time and struggle many have achieved much, and for some there is still a far way to go.
Minority and disadvantaged groups in any society will find it tough to break through those walls of bigotry and fear of the other person. When that arena is a political one, the struggle is even tougher; but, with perseverance and the right mindset, barriers can be overcome. People can see as a strength the diversities that exist in that society.
If we learn to use and draw upon the resources of all persons in our nation we can build a much better place for ourselves and our future generations. If, on the other hand, we adopt a myopic view of development limiting whom we interact with and whom we see as assets, then we doom ourselves to failure.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association, and Muslim chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI.