London Rejects Fear and Elects Its First Muslim Mayor

05/19/2016 03:54 pm ET Updated May 19, 2017

With 50% of Americans agreeing with fear-mongering Donald Trump that Muslims must be barred from entering this country, the fact that London, one of the world's most important cities and capital of the country with whom we have a "special relationship," just elected the first Muslim mayor in its long and storied history must seem incomprehensible to half the U.S.

The fact that Sadiq Khan won with 57% of the vote and his closest opponent, who played the terrorist card against him, got only 43% of the vote---giving this son of a bus driver from Pakistan, who grew up to become a human rights lawyer, Labour member of Parliament, and cabinet minister, the biggest personal mandate of any politician in British history (also here, here, and here), in an election drawing the biggest turnout ever---must seem equally incomprehensible to many here in the U.S.

But those are the remarkable facts. What a difference fear makes.

Here in America, amid a fear-driven and apocalyptic Republican presidential campaign---with each primary victory Trumps renews his promise, "We're gonna build a wall, folks!"---the question we Americans must ask ourselves is this: When did we become so afraid---of Muslims, of "the other"?

Demographically, London provides more potential tinder than the U.S.: Fully one-eighth of London residents are Muslim and, overall, one-quarter are foreign-born, making London a cosmopolitan magnet. London also has had its catastrophic 9/11 event: the terrorist attacks by radical Islamists on the city's transportation system---the underground and a bus---on July 7, 2005, now known as 7/7, that left 52 dead.

In this combustible context, when Islamophobia is on the rise---in London, here, and throughout the West in general---almost everything depends on political leadership.

Unlike the race-baiting and divisive Trump, Sadiq Khan ran an inclusive campaign, with the slogan, "A mayor for all Londoners" (also here). Likewise, on the campaign trail and in the media, Khan presented himself as all-inclusive, containing multitudes: "I'm a Londoner, I'm European, I'm British, I'm English, I'm of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband."

While Khan made clear he is not a "spokesman for Islam," stressing, again, he'd be a mayor for all Londoners, at the same time he fronted the threat of radical Islam and pointed to himself as someone uniquely able to counter Islamist terrorism:

"Clearly, being someone who is a Muslim brings with it experiences that I can use in relation to dealing with extremists and those who want to blow us up..... What better antidote to the hatred they spew than someone like me being in this position?"

After the Paris terrorist attacks last November, in a speech Khan said that Muslims have a "special role" to play in countering terrorism

"not because we are more responsible [for terrorism] than others, as some have wrongly claimed, but because we can be more effective at tackling extremism than anyone else."

On the subject of countering extremism, in his mayoral campaign Khan said:

"My experience in....taking on the preachers of hate was saying to them it's compatible being British, being Western, being Muslim. I've experienced the receiving end of this extremism, whether it's the extremists campaigning against me when I stood for Parliament in 2005 and 2010 and 2015, saying somehow it was haram---sinful---to vote, let alone to stand for Parliament. I've been on the receiving end of a fatwa [death sentence] when fighting for equality in relation to same sex marriage...., so I understand what that's like."

Upon his victory, achieved with an inclusive campaign, Khan exulted in the record turnout and his record mandate:

"That shows what a wonderful city we are. We're not simply tolerating each other---you tolerate a toothache. I don't want to be tolerated. We respect, we embrace, and we celebrate, which is fantastic."

Contrast that positive outlook with the preacher of hate Donald Trump, who spews against nearly everybody---Muslims, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, women.

To be sure, there was hateful spewing in the London mayoral race. Khan's closest opponent and a conservative, Zac Goldsmith, tried to smear Khan with the terrorist tag, accusing Khan in his lawyer role of representing terrorists and charging Khan of giving "oxygen and cover" to them. (Khan's response: A lawyer sometimes represents clients he does not agree with.) Goldsmith also charged that Khan shared a speaker's platform nine times with an imam whom he accused, falsely, of supporting radical Islam. Both charges were fanned by the conservative press (also here) and repeated by conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament (note video). (The P.M. has since apologized "for any misunderstanding.")

Impressively, Khan shows no fear in pushing back at fear-mongers, as he did in his own campaign. Already Khan is calling out Trump on his fear-mongering, saying Trump is "ignorant" about Islam, "alienates" mainstream Muslims, and "plays into the hands" of the extremists" (see video). He adds he hopes Trump "loses badly" and offers to help Hillary Clinton in that task. (Presumably his offer extends to Bernie Sanders too, should Sanders become the Democratic nominee.) As Khan says, "I think what we've shown---and I hope it's a lesson that Hillary and others in America take on board---hope does trump fear, forgive the pun."

Also impressively, Khan would reject a President Trump's offer to make an "exception" to his ban on Muslims and invite him to Washington. Khan's reason? "This isn't just about me. It's about my friends, my family, and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine." (Cleverly, Khan now invites Trump to London to visit his Muslim family and get educated about Islam. Stupidly and hypocritically, Trump calls Khan "very rude"---this from Donald the Rude---and challenges him to an I.Q. test!) Of course Trump now weasels on his Muslim ban, claiming it was just a "suggestion," not a real vow. Point: Sadiq Khan for moral leadership.

Now, back to the question: Why are Americans so susceptible at this point in our history to a fear-monger, such that he is now the presumptive nominee of one of our two major political parties? When did we become so afraid of Muslims, of "the other"?

It would take a book to unpack the reasons. Understandably, the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino by radical Islamists would be cited as one, but does that truly justify all the fear and hysteria? Certainly, the signs of that fear and hysteria are everywhere: a citizenry armed to the teeth; gun sales setting records; states passing "concealed carry" laws permitting citizens to carry guns onto college campuses and even into churches; and the above-mentioned major political party stoking the fear and hysteria with over-the-top demagogy and a near-treasonous scorn of President Obama for not saying the words "radical Islamic terrorism."

Perhaps it comes down to national culture. The English have a reputation for "the stiff upper lip," while Americans don't. (We used to have a similar rep, for grinning and bearing it, also for being cool.) Perhaps we Americans might take a cue from our transatlantic "special relationship." As a wag writing for the The Economist put it, invoking England's famous World War II slogan "Keep calm and carry on": Sadiq Khan won the London mayor's race by defying fear and conveying civility---with a campaign whose slogan might have been (wrote the wag) "Keep Khan and carry on"---a campaign which, admirably, Londoners embraced, building a bridge to their multi-ethnic future.

So, my dear fellow Americans: Keep calm and carry on---with much less fear, O.K.?

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."