It can seem a pretty bleak picture for Western Muslims.
Across Europe, far-right parties are making gains, fueled by fear of growing Muslim populations and the violence of Islamic extremists. In the United States, Donald Trump might be Islamophobe-in-Chief, but the bigotry goes far deeper. More Americans support a Muslim ban than support the billionaire, which suggests that, if a less unsavory politician delivered the same proposals, they might gain still more traction.
I arrived this weekend in Seattle, for a conference organized by the Muslim Students Association at the University of Washington. The sentiment I heard from many attendees and speakers was, instead of the recent, funereal tone of many Muslim gatherings, practically celebratory. I heard spirits were similarly buoyed across America, our eyes fixed on distant London, which shines like a beacon of hope in a dark time. Sadiq Khan had won.
You may not have heard of him, but trust me when I say many Muslims have.
Khan’s victory represents a second grave failure of Islamophobia, after Stephen Harper's electoral failure last year. That’s not just reassuring, though. It’s empowering. Because Khan is Muslim and Pakistani like many of us — including me. When he decided to run for Mayor of London, he was the frontrunner, given Labour’s strength in the capital. His opponent, Zac Goldsmith, was starting at a disadvantage, which makes the Conservative turn to Trumpian rhetoric unsurprising, if still disappointing.
I feared Khan would be slayed.
Time and again, British media attempted to associate Khan with extremism.
They made insinuations based on his ethnicity and religion, even as Khan tried to keep the conversation to politics. None of these allegations had any merit, but these days I’ve become fearful that Islam is the iceberg that will sink every Titanic. But London, a city that is about an eighth Muslim, elected a Muslim mayor with some 57% of the vote.
Khan enjoys a great mandate. But so do mainstream Muslims like me.
Islamic extremists love to point to the existence of (rising) anti-Muslim sentiment in many parts of the West as evidence that Islam and the West are fated to fight. The idea of coexistence, of cooperation, of pluralism, of secular politics, drives them off the walls they’d like to see go up and stay up. This must make them so much crazier. After all, for a Ted Cruz or a Ben Carson, politicians who regularly indulge in vile and violent rhetoric, that works in their favor.
But a Pakistani Muslim Briton as Mayor of one of the most important cities in the West?
Nor, happily, is this an outlier.
When Stephen Harper attempted to win a renewed mandate as Canadian Prime Minister — he himself called for the elections — he turned to anti-Muslim themes, hoping fear of Syrian refugees, Quebecois unease over the hijab and niqab, and the struggle against ISIS, would win the day. It is not just fortunate that he failed, but instructive. Just as the fact that a majority of American Muslims appear to support Bernie Sanders casts welcome doubt on the idea that we are reflexively anti-Semitic, so too should the fact that a strong majority of Canadians, and now Londoners, refused to be swayed by anti-Muslim animus, suggest that the West at large is clearly not reflexively or even dominantly Islamophobic.
All that Islamophobia might not just be losing elections though. It’s certainly convinced a lot of Muslims, in my own experience, who would’ve preferred to keep their heads down to become more engaged (and pick sides); one of the consequences of a more politically involved Muslim citizenry means more Sadiq Khans, more Muslim politicians.
I’m hopeful that his brand of inclusive rhetoric and politics will set the tone for the kinds of politics we represent: Namely, that the best revenge against Islamophobia is not Muslim chauvinism, but principled pluralism. Khan has, rightly, taken a strong stand against the anti-Semitism that seems worryingly common in many parts of Europe today, which is the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do.
Because Islamophobia is dangerous. But it isn’t the only dangerous political force in our world.
Stateside, Trump seems to believe that maligning Muslims, and also Mexicans, immigrants, and people of color generally, is a surefire path to victory. I am hopeful that he will be crushed. That America, like Canada and London, will say no to Islamophobia as a campaign plank. We the peoples of Anglophone democracies are united by our common political vision; embedded in our political DNA is a conviction that religion is not a disqualification for office.
Pardon me while I enjoy the irony of Muslims like me, allegedly inveterate theocrats and unredeemable fundamentalists, explaining to the so-called defenders of Western civilization what actually makes our countries great.
You know, secularism.
Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. He is a President of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now