London has its first Muslim mayor. Sadiq Khan won the election in a landslide, securing the largest personal mandate of any British politician ever, in spite of the Islamophobic campaign run by his opponent, Zac Goldsmith. It is easy to be optimistic at such a historic time, but to suppose that because Londoners chose “unity over division and hope over fear,” as Sadiq Khan put it, so too will Americans in the general election later this year may well be comparing apples with oranges.
There was a glimmer of hope when Barack Hussein Obama became President of the United States in 2008. Despite his middle name, Obama’s presidency underscored the fact that religious prejudice in the United States is very much alive. When John F Kennedy ran for President in 1960, he became the first Catholic to ever hold the office of president in the USA. His religion had also become an issue in the campaign.
But in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on September 12, 1960, Kennedy said, “Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured…So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in–for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in.”
Obama’s responses to questions of faith were never as unequivocal as Kennedy’s. While Kennedy insisted on believing “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Obama affirmed his faith in Christianity on several occasions and was cautious not to visit a mosque until his final year in office. In spite of this, according to a CNN Opinion poll conducted in September 2015, 29% of Americans believe, falsely of course, that Obama is a Muslim.
The First Amendment to the American Constitution enshrines religious freedom and bars discrimination on religious grounds, but for most of the Americans who believe Obama to be a Muslim, his religion alone would be grounds for an indictment of the man and his presidency. Would it even have been conceivable then for a man like Sadiq Khan, who openly professes to be Muslim and has even stood for the rights of terror suspects in his capacity as a human rights lawyer, to contemplate a run for public office in America?
There are two crucial differences between the United States and the United Kingdom when it comes to the political standing of religious minorities, and particularly Muslims. First, a recent Pew poll that asked people about the importance of religion in their lives uncovered that more than half (53%) of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives. By contrast, in the UK the number is 21%. In fact, the United States scored much higher on this survey than any other developed western country. It is not entirely surprising then that such attitudes would affect voting patterns and the political framework in the United States.
It is worth noting, for instance, that Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, are both of Indian origin and were born to Hindu and Sikh parents respectively. However, both converted to Christianity when aspiring for public office in the United States.
In the case of Muslims, the post 9/11 environment is so conducive to Islamophobic insinuations that the rhetoric that has dominated the Republican Party this primary season ahead of the 2016 general election in the United States, would, without a doubt, be unacceptable in the United Kingdom.
Surely one could expect calls to ban Muslims from a fringe party like Britain First or the BNP but not from the mainstream Tories, vicious campaign attacks on Sadiq Khan notwithstanding. While African-Americans and Hispanics constitute politically significant minority communities, which must be wooed by the political edifice, Muslims in America are so insignificant numerically that stereotyping them as “the problem” becomes far easier for those who wish to play the politics of fear.
In Britain, on the other hand, earlier immigration from former colonies coupled with the liberal immigration policy of the nineties has led to migrants from South Asia, and more recently, other Muslim countries, establishing sizeable communities in Britain’s cities. In London, for example, the Muslim population stands at 12.5%. And in Bradford it is as high as 25%. These are very significant numbers, which cannot be politically ignored. In the United States, Muslims simply don’t have the numbers to be politically relevant.
Donald Trump’s march to victory as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee and possibly president of the USA remains a real possibility as he continues to bag state after state, despite his scurrilous attacks on Muslims. Sadiq Khan’s victory may have given him temporary pause, as he reflected on carving out exceptions to the banning Muslims from entering the United States rule, but it will not prevent the Islamophobic discourse that is sure to be at the forefront this US election cycle.