May 7, 2016 is a day I will never forget. On that day, I received my acceptance letter from Queen Mary University of London's LLM program in Public International Law. I had already been selected as the 2016-17 Drapers Scholar from my JD alma mater - yet QMUL's acceptance letter finalized the six month-long process.
At this point in my life, I have been in school for two decades: Reception/kindergarten in Dhaka, 12 years of primary school in Texas and South Carolina, four years of university in Nashville, Tennessee, and three years of law school in Virginia... yet this year offers a life-changing opportunity. London - with its world-class universities and endless internship opportunities - is arguably the best city in the world to study international law. To say that I was excited that day would be the understatement of the year.
Yet as most Londoners will remember, May 7 is also day Sadiq Khan was elected the mayor of London. This mayoral election all the way across the pond was closely followed among large segments of the American population as a historic "David versus Goliath" story.
When he was elected, many people across America - particularly among the Muslim, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and immigrant community - openly celebrated in the streets as if he was one of our own. Many of my American friends kept joking that I had to find a way to meet Mayor Khan once I began my studies in London. .I would always laugh them off, never dreaming I would actually have that opportunity during Sadiq Khan's very first public question and answer session last Thursday - much less land front-row general public seats where Mayor Khan and the London Assembly Members were mere yards away...
"Is Sadiq Still Muslim and Asian Though?"
My British friends have already been asking me what I think of Sadiq Khan. In response, I would allude to American comedian Larry Wilmore's landmark address at President Obama's last White House Press Correspondents Dinner:
I've always joked that I voted for the president because he's black. And people say, "Well, do you agree with his policies?" And I always said, "I agree with the policy that he's black."
That's the approach that I as an outsider and guest in this country have to privilege of taking: Admiring Sadiq for who he is and what he represents; that is, the narrative of Sadiq Khan.
Indeed as a recent arrival to this country, I don't claim to completely understand British politics on either a national or local level. I know that like American politics, it's impossible to grasp it by trying to put it in neat ideological boxes, but studying individual issues. Yet I am also starting to grasp how complicated of a position Mayor Khan occupies. The position is uniquely peculiar because as the mayor of this city, the capital of England, the United Kingdom, and the financial capital of the world, he's essentially the second most powerful political figure. Indeed within his party, Sadiq is pretty much second only to Jeremy Corbyn. Plus as mayor of a metropolis like London with so many different communities and interests, Sadiq must find ways to serve the needs of many different responsibilities and constituencies. At the People's Question Time forum, I was also deeply impressed by the Mayor's willingness to be brutally frank ("We all know the southern lines are a disgrace!") rather than dance around realities with flowery diplomatic-speak like so many politicians around the world. I also admired his hands-on approach to problem solving during the Q&A. If he knew who in his staff could resolve a problem or inquiry a questioner had, he would set up a meeting between that staff member and that questioner right after the event.
Yes He Khan
Yet on a personal level, what transcends the intricacies of Sadiq's policies and competency is his remarkably inspirational Obama-esque background. Indeed all of us following the election from across the Pond were able to learn about Sadiq Khan's life and his sheer determination to beat the odds: One of eight children born to Pakistani immigrants - a bus driver and a non-unionized seamstress. Growing up in a cramped three-bedroom house in south-west London, sharing a bunkbed with one of his brothers until he left home in his 20s. Attending school not at an elite public institution or a posh private college, but in a school then known for producing "Bevin boys" in South London.
From these humble circumstances, Sadiq became a renowned human rights attorney who fought for some of the most vulnerable communities in Britain. He then successfully clinched the nomination of his party, only to face off against the son of a billionaire who unleashed an unprecedented barrage of Islamophobic smear tactics. While that is often enough to win many American and European elections, it didn't work in Sadiq's case - just as it famously failed against Obama. The people of London overwhelmingly rejected that nonsense and gave an unprecedented mandate to a human rights lawyer who ran on a promise of making London a better place for some of its most marginalized communities - a man who dared dreaming of leading that charge.
In his seminal work In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf delves into the concept of a blended "composite identity" featuring a complex patchwork of components and "complementary allegiances." Sadiq Khan's composite identity consists of an array of both personal and professional allegiances, among which include belonging to the British, Muslim, Pakistani, immigrant, and both the legal profession and the human rights community. Maalouf goes on to state "Those who can accept their diversity fully will hand on the torch between communities and cultures will be a kind of mortar joining together and strengthening the societies in which they live."
This role is especially critical and valued in a city as vibrantly diverse as London. By simply serving as London's mayor, Sadiq Khan is already acting as the mortar cementing and binding different communities and individuals from all walks of life together.
The Promise of Merit-based Opportunity and Progress
My father actually earned his masters from the UK (University of Stirling). Now almost 35 years later, I was given the opportunity to follow in his footsteps. I naturally looked to him for advice, and a few days before I left for London my dad sat me down and solemnly said:
"Son just remember: When your peers in the UK see you, they'll know you're Asian. As soon as they look at your name, they'll know you're Muslim. And as soon as you open your mouth, they'll know you're American.
So study hard."
He said that a full three months before the mind-numbing nightmare of our disastrous election a few days ago. Indeed, the last year I have had the opportunity to work or travel to five countries in both hemispheres, and I have never felt more embarrassingly self-conscious of being an American. I have been in Bangladesh when George W. Bush was President - yet the Trump phenomenon is an uniquely enduring source of shame. Yet what is unfolding in my country goes beyond mere embarrassment, as the ubiquitous forces of racism, xenophobia, sexism, bigotry, intolerance, and ignorance become revitalized and unleashed on an increasingly divided country. Even if these forces were decisively beaten in the election booth a few days ago, our country would have a massive task with national reconciliation and social healing. Now it perhaps will never be quite the same.
Yet in the midst of all this darkness lies hope in the promise of progress. As Larry Wilmore went on to state in his White House Correspondents Dinner address:
"When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn't accept a black quarterback. Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team -- and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world."
Larry Wilmore received a standing ovation for that observation, and I thought of his words when Sadiq related a story from his childhood:
"My dad would tell me the story of when he came here. Signs in front of inns would say "No blacks - that is anyone who isn't white - no Irish, and no dogs. Now his son is the mayor of London."
Both of my parents are highly educated - yet they were willing to sacrifice their upper middle class lives back in Bangladesh to give their children a better education and quality of life. When we first came to the United States, they both worked at McDonalds and my dad worked double shifts to provide for our family. Yet my parents and their children wouldn't be here if it wasn't for three of my maternal uncles who helped pave the way for us to come to America - they came from Bangladesh to study engineering in the US while working long hours washing dishes in their campus cafeteria.
Every day, I strive to honor all of their collective sacrifices and repay the enormous trust and faith they continue to have in my potential. I hope to continue serving as a mortar between different composite identities, and to help reunite, heal, and strengthen our fractured nation.
The saga of Sadiq Khan gives me much-needed hope in doing both.