London’s bridge to European Muslims

The election of a Muslim as London’s mayor, along with other examples of respect for religious differences, helps counter an anti-Islam narrative in Europe.

London's new mayor, Sadiq Khan, appears on a BBC show May 8.

One news narrative in Europe has been the rise of anti-Islam extremism, reflected in the electoral gains of nationalist parties that portray Muslims as “the other.” This story line about religious inequality, however, is not sustainable in the face of some obvious facts on the ground, let alone the values of a continent historically rooted in mutual respect for sectarian differences.

One fact that should help overturn the narrative was the May 6 election of a Muslim as mayor of London, one of the world’s most influential cities. The son of immigrants from Pakistan, Sadiq Khan won by a greater vote margin than the two previous mayors. He is now one of the most prominent Muslim politicians in the West, although he promises to be “mayor for all Londoners.” (A 2011 census found 12.4 percent of the city’s 8.6 million people identified as Muslims.)

To make his point, Mr. Khan took office at a ceremony in London’s Southwark Cathedral. A human rights lawyer who rose up from poverty, he also was able to maintain a warm spirit of inclusiveness during the election campaign when some opponents tried to tag him as a friend of terrorists.

“Fear doesn’t make us safer; it only makes us weaker, and the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city,” he said at his swearing in.

That sort of message, combined with the opportunities in Europe for minorities like him to be elected to high position, helps undercut a strong recruiting message for Islamic State (IS) and other violent extremists. (The British Parliament now has 13 Muslim members, up from eight, while the Netherlands port city of Rotterdam has had a Muslim mayor since 2009.)

Khan’s election also points to the absurdity of stereotyping all Muslims as a threat, which is a theme of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States.

Another fact on the ground in Europe is the steady work done since 2015 to resettle Syrian asylum seekers, either many of those who fled by boat to Greece or those who have applied legally in the Middle East. Despite concerns raised by some politicians, the European Union is embracing those opposed to both IS and a dictatorship in Syria – and who chose to flee to Europe.

Europeans can also note another counter-narrative fact about the treatment of Muslims: the May 7 reopening of a historic mosque in Banja Luka, a Serb region of Bosnia.

The original 16th-century mosque, called Ferhat Pasha, was destroyed by Christian Serbs during the Bosnian war of the 1990s and replaced with a parking lot. Its rebuilding 23 years later, said Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik at a ceremony that included Muslims, Jews, and Christians, sends a message of peace. The head of Bosnia’s Muslim community, Efendi Husein Kavazovic, said the restoration is a “triumph of light over darkness.”

In an April report on Islamophobia in Europe, the Turkish think tank SETA made a recommendation for educational institutions and other stakeholders to work toward creating an “alternative narrative” about Muslims and to dispel a negative image of Islam. That work may already be under way. It just needs to be noticed.

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