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Unity Over Division

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with his supporters. PHOTO: AFP

May 12 2016 - Sadiq Khan’s strength is that he exemplifies the city he is set to run as its mayor. “I’m a Londoner, I’m European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Times. He was born in South London, to immigrants from Pakistan, and grew up in a public-housing project. His father drove a bus, and his mother was a seamstress.

While his Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith was busy exploiting racial and cultural stereotypes about Muslims through a dog whistle campaign, Sadiq’s campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues like the cost of housing and transportation. In the end, the nasty campaign of Goldsmith hit a solid wall and Londoners told him to get lost. There is a limit to how far bigotry can go to win popular votes. In his acceptance speech, Khan said that he was “proud that London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division.”

The 45-year-old new mayor has enough credentials for the job. A human rights lawyer by profession, he was elected to Parliament in 2005, appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary Communities and Local Government in 2008, and Secretary of State for Transport—a cabinet position—in 2009 under Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Sadiq has taken a hot seat. To run a city with an acute shortage of affordable homes and a creaking, overcrowded mass transit network is by no means going to be easy. And unlike his counterparts in the US and Europe, the amount of hands-on power that he will enjoy is limited.

He has a lot of great ideas about how to provide more affordable housing to low-income people but any major decision needs the approval of the central government. When he needs extra money above an annual budget of $24.5 billion for more police or an expansion of the city’s railway, he has to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Conservative who may be reluctant to pay for Labour ideas.

Would he be a successful mayor? Well, strong convictions precede great actions. He has promising plans to improve residents’ skills and speed up the construction of a new underground railway that will run from London’s south-west to its north-east. Most excitingly, he wants to expand the power and scope of mayoralty—puny in comparison with its New York equivalent—pledging to lobby for new tax-raising abilities.

His pro-business programme is also interesting. It seems to be more about what firms can do for the city – things like building infrastructure and houses, raising wages and giving policy advice -than what the mayor can do for firms. And the best thing going for him, by all accounts, is that he is an efficient and likeable manager, aware of his weaknesses and open to new ideas.

Sadiq’s victory sends a powerful message to bigots everywhere. That religious prejudice might be real but it is ultimately a losing proposition. That the kind of divisive strategy that has so far worked for the Donald in the US is unlikely to be a formula for winning elections everywhere.

And it wasn’t for former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. When he started playing the anti-Muslim card as he sought re-election last year, he was trounced by his opponent Justin Trudeau who ran a more inclusive campaign. Like most Londoners, Canadians made it clear that there is no place for religious bigotry in their secular societies.

The calm, unyielding yet racially and religiously inclusive campaign of Sadiq Khan has come to symbolise all that is most impressive about London: its diversity. About a quarter of its residents are foreign-born, and one-eighth Muslim. But he is not the first Muslim to hold important office in Europe. Sajid Javid is the British Secretary of State for business, a cabinet rank. Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, has had a Morocco-born Muslim mayor since 2009. Across Britain many councilors – typically in the Labour party – and 13 MPs are Muslim.

The win, which garnered more than 1.3 million votes, reaffirms London’s multicultural image at a time when Europe’s anti-immigration parties have been making inroads in recent months, fuelled by rising public fears following the attacks in Brussels and Paris. Lord Hain, a former Labour cabinet minister, said, “In the dominant British city, probably the most important city in the world, to have a Muslim mayor is an important statement.”

And yet the fact remains – many of those who demand that Muslims in the West prove their fidelity to secular values have not yet begun to internalise these values themselves.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The writer is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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