Why Sadiq Khan’s election as Mayor is so significant for British Muslims

He’s the role model we’ve never had


Last night, Sadiq Khan became the politician with the largest personal mandate in the country with his victory in the London mayoral elections. While his victory has its political significance in its own right, the cultural significance for young Brits from a Muslim background, seeing him become the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city (unless you count Rotterdam) is huge.

My grandparents and parents immigrated to the UK in the 1960s and it’s easy for people our age to forget the struggle they went through. When they first arrived, blatant racism and discrimination was the norm. During the 1980s my dad often talked about how he’d be chased in certain parts of London by skinheads who were notorious for beating up people of Asian backgrounds for no reason. Even when attending major sporting venues back then, the Asian community encountered casual racism. So much so that my dad’s opinion of Birmingham is completely influenced by his negative experiences there as a young adult.

When my grandparents moved here, they came alongside many distant family members – many of whom I see at family weddings today. One striking thing about these family gatherings is how different the descendants of the original immigrants are. Some live in affluent parts of London and have friends from all sorts of backgrounds. At some weddings there are people who have lived their entire lives in London. Sometimes there won’t be a single white person present. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it shows how it’s quite hard to generalise about British Muslims. Many such as myself have integrated and genuinely feel a part of the modern Britain. But a huge number still don’t see themselves as British, despite never having even visited Pakistan in their lives. To some of them who live in areas largely populated by British Asians, the stories of their parents’ struggles don’t seem so long ago.

The author at a family gathering

The author at a family wedding

Growing up as a son of Pakistani immigrants in Britain, having British Pakistani or British Muslim role models was a rarity. There was the occasional cricketer or the odd mid-level actor, but hardly anyone of real influence. The most frequent mention of Muslims in the news were either foreign dictators or terrorists who threatened the lives of people in the West.

In his election, Sadiq Khan becomes a role model that generations of British Pakistanis have never had. A charismatic Londoner who’s proud of his heritage and shows that a Muslim background is perfectly compatible with British values.

This won’t be news to many, but the campaign showed exactly why it’s important to have a prominent British Pakistani in politics. Khan was vilified by his opponents for tenuous links with Muslim extremists, despite receiving death threats from those very same extremists for voting for the Same Sex Couples Act three years ago. Homosexuality has long been a contentious issue in British Muslim communities, and the image of seeing a Muslim criticised for being an extremist despite his liberal views would have been disheartening. It gave a sense you’d still be judged for your background even if you accepted British values, and rejected by Muslims at the same time. You’d feel neither British nor Pakistani.

Sadiq Khan this morning, during his first speech as Mayor of London

Sadiq Khan this morning, during his first speech as Mayor of London

Khan’s election, with votes from over a million Londoners, gives British Muslims and Pakistanis the confidence that they are well and truly are accepted by modern London. It gives hope that the major problems of racism their parents faced no longer exist. In his victory speech Khan said that when he grew up he “never dreamt that someone like [him] would become Mayor of London.”

Now, he can become the inspiration for all people of a British Muslim background to emulate him in the future.