When Barack Obama won his first presidential election, I told my students they should rejoice regardless of their politics. It was a wonderful moment when a country scarred by slavery and racism elected a black man to the nation's highest office. It was yet more wonderful because Obama's victory inspired people of colour far beyond American shores.
Sadiq Khan's election as mayor of London has been much less celebrated than Obama's success in 2008. But it may be just as important. True, his office does not have the same powers as the White House, and Britain does not have the same international standing as the U.S. Nevertheless, the people of London electing a Muslim to govern their city is every bit as monumental as Obama's victory. We should hope that it proves to have been one of the most important elections in history. It has the potential to change the world.
Racism was endemic and ugly when Khan grew up in London in the 1970's. His decision to take up boxing had good reason. I was born in London in the 1970's and I had friends at school who, like Khan, were children of Pakistani immigrants. It would have been hard to imagine one of them going on to win more than a million votes in the nation's largest electoral district.
That Khan did so shows how much the country has changed. Many white Londoners preferred a Muslim son of a bus driver to his opponent Zac Goldsmith, a white scion of the English establishment. Muslim terrorists had killed fifty-six and injured hundreds in London on July 7, 2005. Yet its residents believed what their teachers, their experience, and most of their politicians had told them: that the terrorists were not representative of Islam.
South Asian migrants to Britain went through three phases as they built their lives there. The first was survival: get a job, keep your head down, keep a job. The second was political: standing up for their rights as non-white citizens. The third was religious: achieving recognition as Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities.
Khan's election points to a fourth phase, in which being a non-white British Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh is routine. There's still too much racial prejudice and fear of other religions, but for more and more people in Britain these differences are not that big of a deal. Some voted for Khan precisely because he is a member of an ethnic minority, seeing him as particularly qualified to govern a diverse city. But most probably believed only that he offered the best solutions to their city's problems, and that was what mattered.
One of the West's most prominent cities now has a Muslim in charge. Khan is an observant Muslim, but he has also drawn the ire of some of his co-religionists for his support of socially liberal legislation. He is highly visible proof that Islam and democracy can go together. Like Obama, he offers hope to people who have felt excluded as a result of their ethnicity. Better yet, he offers that same hope to people who have felt excluded because of their religion, especially to Muslims trying to reject the tag of terrorism.
Yet global press coverage of Khan's election has been muted. In Britain, articles focused on the challenges facing the new mayor. Perhaps it is best not to celebrate too much, or hope too much: reality has a way of disappointing, as many African Americans have found over the past eight years. But everyone who aches when they read of another terrorist attack, whether in the Middle East or Europe, should rejoice at Khan's election. His voice will carry to Paris, Berlin, Budapest, and further. He said that his election sent a message to all the "haters in Iraq and Syria." Anyone who prays should pray for him.
Five hundred years ago, you were just as likely to find tolerance in Muslim lands than in Christian ones. Sadiq Khan offers our best hope yet for recasting Islam in the public imagination. May he prove to the most effective war on terror yet.