Mayor Sadiq Khan & Europe’s Historical Amnesia

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nureen khadrNureen Khadr is a senior international studies major.

Last week, Sadiq Khan became the first Muslim mayor of London, which according to news outlets meant he was the first Muslim to ever govern any major European city, let alone a major Western capital. When I first heard the news, my immediate reaction was elation. It is not often that I wake up to news that is not only positive but positive about Muslims. This happiness was followed by my irritation at the blatant disregard for the vast premodern and modern history of Islamic rule in Europe.

Islam in the West is not as new as many might think, even in the United States. Yes, every day we are exposed to rhetoric about Islam bleeding into the West with Donald Trump’s talk of banning the entry of Muslims into the United States in light of the Syrian refugee crisis and fear of the Islamic State. But Islam’s presence on American soil dates back to the early 1500s with the arrival of slaves. One of the earliest accounts is of Estevanico, a Moroccan slave, being shipwrecked near modern-day Galveston, Texas. There is also mention of those with ‘Mahometan parentage’ in a Virginia statute of 1682 being subject to slavery.

Beyond that, Islam in Europe is not new. The running conservative fear of “creeping Sharia” was long fulfilled centuries ago. In fact, as Professor Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, stated, Khan’s achievement should actually be referred to as him being voted in as “the first Muslim mayor of a really big Western European city in the modern period (say the past two centuries).” There is a long line of precedence before him of Muslim rulers on the Western continent, as it’s been a present and dominant tradition there for nearly 1300 years.

Islamic rule was present in modern-day Spain and Portugal since 711 and lasted for over 900 years until at least 1614. Al-Andalus, or the Iberian peninsula, was considered one of the greatest Muslim civilizations. During this time, Cordoba, the most populous global city in the 900s, became one of the leading educational, cultural and economic hubs in Europe. Major advances came about from al-Andalus, including strides in trigonometry, astronomy, surgical medicine, and more. Sicily was also an Arab Muslim emirate for over 200 years with a Muslim emir and mayor of its capital, Palmero.

The most recent of Islamic empires, the Ottoman Empire, also had great political stakes in Europe with rule over major European countries including Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, and Poland. Athens alone was under Ottoman control for approximately 400 years and Budapest was ruled by Abdurrahman Abdi Pasha the Albanian, a military governor.

Sadiq Khan’s win over a privileged conservative that ran on a platform of Islamophobic attacks is undoubtedly a victory. But Muslim presence in political rule is not a new phenomenon and continuing to sensationalize Khan’s time in office only contributes to the convenient narrative of denial that Western countries have when it comes to Islam in Europe and North America. Islam and Muslims are so essential to European history that the two entities cannot be considered separate. It should be recognized that Sadiq Khan joins a long legacy of Muslim rulers and mayors of European polities, including sitting, elected Muslim mayors of Rotterdam, one of Europe’s major port cities, and Tirana, the capital of Albania.

Photo courtesy of Steve Punter/Wikimedia Commons

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