It's been described as London's "Obama moment."
Sadiq Khan, a first-generation Briton of Pakistani descent, is today set to be elected mayor of one of the world's largest cities. Perhaps more significantly, he will be the first Muslim to be so tapped – in London or in any of its Western peers.
But while it is a new pinnacle for both British Pakistanis and Muslims in British politics, it is not so clear whether it will help blaze a trail for either minority in Britain more broadly. Mr. Khan, the Londoner son of blue-collar immigrants, is undoubtedly a success story. But observers are divided over just how much an influence he will be on the broader community: Some see him as a role model for the often-marginalized Pakistani community, to show how they can improve their lot. But others warn that Khan has played down his own heritage, which may serve to limit his influence.
A minority left behind
Khan's victory, over Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith, looks all but assured: polls before the election gave the Labour candidate Khan 49 percent percent of the vote, with 34 percent for Mr. Goldsmith. And Khan's victory is all the more marked due to the contrast between his and Goldsmith's backgrounds.
Khan's parents, who arrived in the 1960s like tens of thousands of other blue-collar Pakistanis, worked as a bus driver and a seamstress. Like their fellow immigrants, Khan and his siblings attended the state-run schools. Goldsmith was born into privilege as the son of financier Sir James Goldsmith and attended Eton, Britain’s most famous private school.
By and large, Britain's roughly 1.2 million citizens of Pakistani descent have not caught up to their peers. According to recent research by the think tank Demos, British Pakistanis have the country’s lowest life expectancy, largest share of economically inactive women, lowest employment rate, and the second-lowest school results (only Bangladeshi children fare worse).
That is due in large part to Pakistani immigrants having settled in northern manufacturing cities like Bradford and Birmingham. A full one-fifth of Bradford’s half-million residents are Pakistani, compared to 2 percent of Britain’s total population. While those regions offered jobs in the 1960s, in the decades since unemployment has risen as British manufacturing has declined.
That has left British Pakistanis with limited future prospects. There are a number of successful Pakistani businessmen in the UK, but they come from the upper class, not the project housing environment that most Pakistanis inhabit.
Moreover, that lack of success is mirrored by a perception among Britons that British Pakistanis have not made themselves a part of society. Britons think Indians, Africans, and even Eastern Europeans have integrated better than Pakistanis, according to a recent YouGov poll.
A signal to Pakistanis?
Khan, however, has forged a successful career path for himself, training as a lawyer and, after several years running his own law firm, being elected as a Labour parliamentarian. That puts him in position to act as both role model and ambassador for his community.
“It will send a message to the Pakistani community that you can make yourself heard if you develop yourself and express yourself in a logical way that people will understand,” says Dr. Saeeda Shah, a reader at the University of Leicester who specializes in Islam and education. “The sort of Pakistanis who came here didn’t have that skill. Yes, there’s discrimination against all ethnic minorities, but ... through his own efforts Khan has made it to the national level. That sends a signal.”
But others note that Khan has marketed himself as a Muslim and a child of project housing – not as a Pakistani.
Cameron Younis, prominent British Pakistani columnist in Bradford, argues that while he agrees with Khan's politics, he doesn't consider him to be a role model, nor is his election of direct benefit to the Pakistani community.
“[His election] won’t make any substantial difference for Pakistanis,” he says. “Khan has never played a major role in the politics of British Pakistanis" – who tend to be focused on issues of unemployment and integration – "nor has he traditionally engaged with the government of Pakistan on issues facing British or London Pakistanis.”
Still, Khan’s election has the potential, at least in London, to reverse Pakistanis’ fortunes, even if he doesn’t specifically engage with them. “This election is about the establishment clan versus the Pakistani Muslim,” says Gina Hassan, the London-based communications director for a Pakistani charity. “Pakistanis here are often marginalized and completely disenfranchised. A victory by Khan, who is seen as mostly neutral, would open many doors for Pakistanis.”
According to Dr. Shah, who also specializes in cross-cultural research, Khan’s likely victory will also convince young Pakistanis that there are “constructive ways of engaging with the larger community.” And it will send a signal to non-Pakistani Britons that Pakistanis are really no different.