By Roger Cohen
May 9, 2016
The most important political event of recent weeks was not the emergence of Donald J. Trump as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party but the election of Sadiq Khan, the Muslim son of a London bus driver, as mayor of London.
Trump has not won any kind of political office yet, but Khan, the Labour Party candidate, crushed Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative, to take charge of one of the world’s great cities, a vibrant metropolis where every tongue is heard. In his victory, a triumph over the slurs that tried to tie him to Islamist extremism, Khan stood up for openness against isolationism, integration against confrontation, opportunity for all against racism and misogyny. He was the anti-Trump.
Before the election, Khan told my colleague Stephen Castle, “I’m a Londoner, I’m a European, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband.”
The world of the 21st century is going to be shaped by such elided, many-faceted identities and by the booming cities that celebrate diversity, not by some bullying, brash, bigoted, “America first” white dude who wants to build walls.
It is worth noting that under the ban on Muslim noncitizens entering the country that Trump proposes, Khan would not be allowed to visit the United States. To use one of Trump’s favourite phrases, this would be a “complete and total disaster.” It would make America a foul mockery in the eyes of a world already aghast at the Republican candidate’s rise.
Khan’s election is important because it gives the lie to the facile trope that Europe is being taken over by Jihadi Islamists. It underscores the fact that terrorist acts hide a million quiet success stories among European Muslim communities. One of seven children of a Pakistani immigrant family, Khan grew up in public housing and went on to become a human rights lawyer and government minister. He won more than 1.3 million votes in the London election, a personal mandate unsurpassed by any politician in British history.
His election is important because the most effective voices against Islamist terrorism come from Muslims, and Khan has been prepared to speak out. After the Paris attacks last year, he said in a speech that Muslims had a “special role” to play in countering the terrorism, “not because we are more responsible than others, as some have wrongly claimed, but because we can be more effective at tackling extremism than anyone else.”
Khan has also reached out to Britain’s Jewish community, vigorously disavowing the creeping anti-Semitism in Labour ranks that last month saw Ken Livingstone, a former London mayor, suspended from the party.
As George Eaton observed in The New Statesman: “Khan will be a figure of global significance. His election is a rebuke to extremists of all stripes, from Donald Trump to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who assert that religions cannot peacefully coexist.”
Trump as a politician is a product of American fear and anger above all. In the past several weeks, a U.C. Berkeley student has been escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight because he was heard speaking Arabic, and an olive-skinned, curly haired Italian Ivy League economist was taken off an American Airlines flight because he was spotted scribbling mathematical calculations that his seatmate found suspicious.
Trump — described to me by Norm Ornstein, the political scientist, as “the most insecure and ego-driven person in the country” — is the mouthpiece of this frightened America that sees threats everywhere (even in an Italian mathematician).
When Trump declares, “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” the rest of the world hears an angry nation flexing its muscles.
Khan’s rise, by contrast, is a story of victory over the fears engendered by 9/11. His victory is a rebuke to Osama bin Laden, the Islamic State, jihadi ideology of every stripe — and to the hatemongering politicians like Trump who choose to play the Muslim-equals-danger game. Khan has argued that greater integration is essential and “too many British Muslims grow up without really knowing anyone from a different background.”
Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct.” Donald Trump has written: “I have learned to listen and trust my gut. It’s one of my most valued counselors.” He recently said, “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable.”
Put together an egotist, a bully, immense power and a taste for gut-driven unpredictability and you have a dangerous brew that could put civilization at risk. Those small fingers would have access to the nuclear codes if Trump was elected.
In this context, Sadiq Khan’s victory is reassuring because he represents currents in the world — toward global identity and integration — that will prove stronger over time than the tribalism and nativism of Trump.
© 2016 The New York Times Company