The new Mayor of London spotlights need for European Muslim role models

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

So far, Sadiq Khan’s name and life story mean little outside Britain. The new Mayor of London is still relatively unknown in Europe. He should not be. As they tear their hair out over the massive arrival of refugees and migrants, Khan’s story should help set the record straight on immigration, integration and European Muslims.

The former human rights lawyer and the son of a bus driver from Pakistan may not see himself as a role model for the million-plus Muslims who have entered Europe in search of shelter, safety and jobs. But he should. And so should the many other European Muslims – whether practicing or not – who are proudly British, French, Dutch, German or Belgian. Because unless their stories are told and retold, the pervasive narrative of Muslims as “the other”, as aliens who can never become “true” Europeans, will go on and on.

The counter-narrative to the anti-Muslim discourse is more imperative than ever. It is needed to ensure that as European governments struggle to deal with the challenge of receiving the newcomers, including thousands of children, their focus is not just on the misfits and extremists but on the millions of Muslims who are an integral part of Europe’s politics, society and economy. If not, too many Europeans will stay entangled in a negative and often toxic conversation about Islam and Muslims.

The anti-Islam rhetoric has already seeped into the political mainstream

Certainly, the increasingly virulent – and increasingly popular – far-right parties see the unwanted newcomers as a threat to Europe’s values and to European security. Many governments in Eastern Europe make no secret of their fear of Islam. The anti-Islam rhetoric has already seeped into the political mainstream. Talk to any European policymaker and the discussion soon turns to Muslims and their “failure to integrate”. Muslims’ attitudes towards women and gays are often cited as one glaring example of the disconnect between “real” Europeans and Muslims. The recent tragic terror attacks in Paris and Brussels have led to further vilification of Muslims as terrorists and misfits.

In a bitter election campaign, Khan had to fight off repeated allegations from his Conservative Party opponents of his alleged links with Muslim extremists. But as Khan underlined, the politics of hope won over the politics of fear. The negative discourse on Islam – or the view that all Muslims are victims – distracts from the reality of Europe today.

European Muslims are members of several European governments, especially at city and municipal level. Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Abutaleb has won accolades for running the city since 2009. There is a handful of EU officials and members of both the European and national parliaments who are Muslims. Like former One Direction singer Zayn Malik, European Muslims are doing well in the arts, sports and in business. The list is long and inspiring.

Khan had to fight off repeated allegations from his Conservative Party opponents of his alleged links with Muslim extremists

Their experiences need to be part of a new narrative on integration. Such an exercise will require determination and vision, good arguments backed up by facts and better – much better – communication. It means moving from talking about “us” and “them” to a more inclusive language of living in a shared space, with shared concerns and interests and, yes, even shared values.

The message should be clear: integration is a two-way street, requiring adjustment efforts by migrants and host societies. Newcomers must abide by existing rules so that they can become part of the conversation. But in exchange they should be accepted as full-fledged members of society. Integration can be a long and difficult process. There is no silver bullet, no magic wand to make it easier. In these challenging times, some form of “affirmative action” is needed to encourage minorities to become active social participants.

The EU institutions can contribute to changing the narrative on immigration by making a determined effort to recruit and promote men and women from migrant communities. Such measures could be based on the EU’s relatively successful policy on gender equality. With European Parliament elections scheduled for 2019, the EU assembly should make sure that ethnic minority politicians are included on their voting lists.

Above all, stories of successful integration are desperately needed to help change the current negative conversation on Islam and Europe.

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