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Boris Johnson’s first eight months as London mayor

by Susannah Tarbush

Before the election of the Conservative politician and journalist Boris Johnson as Mayor of London on May 1, there were warnings from certain sectors of the Muslim community that a victory for Johnson over the then Labour mayor Ken Livingstone would be a calamity for London and for Muslims. Some went as far as describing Johnson as an “Islamophobe” (ie someone who hates Islam and Muslims). 

Johnson (44), who has a distinctive mop of unruly white-blond hair, is one of the most complex and contradictory figures in British politics. He was first elected as an MP in 2001, and since then his role as a journalist has at times collided with his role as a politician. He was editor of the Spectator political weekly from 1999 to 2005, and currently earns a reported £250,000 a year as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The accusations that he was Islamophobic were based to some extent on a cover story he wrote for the Spectator magazine of 16 July 2005, just nine days after four suicide attacks in London killed 52 innocent people and injured more than 700. Towards the end of the article he made criticisms of Islam itself. And yet Johnson has a Turkish Muslim great grandfather Ali Kemal (1869-1922), a journalist, politician and interior minister who was murdered by supporters of Ataturk.

The election campaign confirmed the growing importance of the Muslim factor on the British electoral scene. According to the 2001 census, London’s Muslims number 706,000 – almost a tenth of the city’s population of 7.5 million.

A number of Muslim organisations, notably the British Muslim Initiative – dismissed by their critics as “Islamists” – launched a high-profile “Muslims for Ken” campaign.  At the same time 63 Muslims representing mosques and organisations signed an open letter to the Guardian newspaper calling on Muslims and all Londoners to vote for Livingstone’s re-election.

The Muslim activists’ campaign for Livingstone was not surprising given that he is seen as one of the British politicians most sympathetic to Muslims. His closeness to Muslim activists was part of a wider pattern of alliances between certain factions on the left and Muslim groups which arose from a shared opposition to the “war on terror” after 9/11. Livingstone was particularly known for his friendship with the Egyptian preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi whom he invited to a conference in London in 2004. But not all Muslims were comfortable with Livingstone’s closeness to Qaradawi given the latter’s statements on matters such as wife beating, suicide bombing and homosexuals.

Before Johnson became a mayoral candidate, much of the general public knew him best for his appearances as a guest presenter of the popular BBC TV weekly satirical show “Have I got News for You?” , during which his humour and likeability were clear.  He was also known for his tendency to get into trouble. In 2004 the then leader of the Conservative Party Michael Howard sacked him as vice-chairman of the Conservative Party , and shadow culture, minister for lying about an affair with a woman journalist at the Spectator. But Boris’s friend David Cameron brought him back into the shadow cabinet when he became Conservative leader, and he appointed him as shadow minister for higher education.

There was surprise and alarm in some quarters when Johnson was chosen as the Conservative mayoral candidate. Could this comic figure with his reputation for attracting trouble really become a credible mayor? Could he run a city with huge business and financial interests, a city that has a diverse mixture of nationalities and religions, which is under severe threat of further terror attacks, and which faces the challenges of staging the 2012 Olympics?

Al-Hayat found differing views of Johnson and his first eight months as mayor among London’s Muslims. Dr Ghayassudin Siddiqui,  leader and co-founder of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, who is regarded as a liberal, told Al-Hayat: “I have not noticed anything he’s done which should upset anyone in the Muslim community”.

On the other hand a spokesman (who did not wish to be named) for the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), one of the groups which lobbied for Ken Livingstone to be re-elected, criticised Johnson’s record as mayor – although none of  the things he mentioned were issues specifically concerning Muslims rather than Londoners in general. The MPACUK spokesman claimed that crime has got worse under Johnson, that his reversal of Livingstone’s traffic congestion charge policy will be bad for the environment, and that the new buses Johnson is introducing have not been tested or properly costed. He ridiculed  Johnson’s proposal for an airport on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary to replace plans to build a third runway at Heathrow.

One thing that may have encouraged at least some Muslims to see Johnson in a more favourable light is his presenting and writing of the two-part series “After Rome: Holy War and Conquest”, screened recently on BBC TV.

Dr Siddiqui said he was delighted by this “objective” and “marvellous” series in which Johnson “on every occasion put the Muslim point of view”.  However the MPACUK spokesman did not share this view and said: “The subtext of the series was that Muslims are a threat.”

The series  explores Christian-Muslim relations between the fall of Rome in 476 and the fall of Granada in 1492, and in particular the impact of the Crusades. In making the series Johnson travelled to Syria, Egypt, Jerusalem, Turkey and Spain, and the majority of those he interviewed were Arab scholars . Among them were Professor Sadik al-Azm of the University of Damascus, Dr Muhsin Yusuf of Birzeit University, Professor Taef al-Azhari of the University of Helwan, Egypt ,and Dr Muhammad Habash of the Islamic Studies Centre in Damascus.

Johnson ended on a positive note: standing in front of a statue of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in Cordoba, Spain, he predicted that “what feels now like the Clash of Civilisations will turn out to have been the birth pangs of a single, tolerant, global civilisation of which we saw the first inklings, however imperfect, in the unity of the ancient Mediterranean world and medieval Cordoba.”

The Mayor’s office says that the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain Muhammad Abdel-Bari wrote a letter to Johnson saying: “I have no hesitation to affirm my fullest appreciation for this wonderful effort. It was quite objective and impartial; what’s more you came across very well in your presentation.”

In all, the mayor’s office received around 48 comments following the programme. A spokesman for the mayor said that “the vast majority have been positive, praising both the programme itself and the way in which the Mayor presented the issues.” A typical comment was: “In times where so much of what is reported about Islam is distorted, it was refreshing to see this documentary which transcended such ignorant projections of Islam.”

Many other messages were posted on Johnson’s website and the BBC website. Most were favourable, but a few criticised Johnson for being too sympathetic to Muslims. One even accused him of appeasing Al-Qaeda, while another found him guilty of “whitewashing  Muslim massacres and brutalities while highlighting those of Christians”.

Professor John Milbank , research professor of religion, politics and ethics at Nottingham University wrote: “Ironically, as a Labour voter, I found this programme to be far too liberal and multicultural. Just not Tory [ie Conservative] enough!!!”

There were claims from Johnson’s critics at the time of the mayoral election that he would end funding for faith-based events. But the third annual Eid al-Fitr celebration that took place in Trafalgar Square on October 11 was hosted by Johnson, and organised jointly with the Muslim Council of Britain. Thousands of Muslims packed Trafalgar Square for the event, which included Qur’anic recitation, music and exhibitions.

Johnson pointed out in his speech to the crowd that the word Trafalgar has Arabic roots, coming from Taraf al-Ghar in south-west Spain where a British fleet led by Nelson scored a victory over the French in 1805. The fact that a great square in central London has a name derived from Arabic is “a sign of the way our cultures and our history are woven together. The  more the understanding of our common history, then the less prejudice there is.” 

The Mayor added:  “You may or may not know this or believe it, but exactly 100 years ago, in 1908, my father's father's father came to south London. He was a Muslim and he knew the Qur’an off by heart in Arabic, or at least large chunks of it. He would be utterly amazed to discover that his great-grandson had become Mayor of London. I am proud of that."

Johnson’s speech to the Eid gathering was an example of the efforts he has made as Mayor to build good relations with the Muslim community. In October he sent a warm message of support to the annual Global Peace and Unity Event, organised by the Islam Channel and said to be the largest Muslim event of its kind in Europe.  Johnson said the hugely varied Muslim community “in many ways represents everything that is special about London: vibrant, engaged, tolerant and dynamic. The community has played a hugely significant part in the social, cultural and economic affairs of this city and I hope that under my Mayoralty this continues.”

In an interview published in the 26 September issue of the London-based monthly newspaper Muslim News Johnson said: “One thing I decided very early on was that the only way to run London is to support diversity and to recognise that you have got to be proactive and give encouragement and support to all communities.”

He described the propaganda against him in the Mayoral election campaign as “very serious”, and as “offensive and upsetting”. He wished to “knock on the head” such “suspicions and anxieties”, and he  would be engaging with the Muslim community. When he found out his great grandfather knew the Qur’an by heart, “I immediately bought the Qur’an and have been learning Arabic.”

The racist British National Party (BNP), which has a clear agenda against Muslims, was unhappy about the Muslim News interview. It said that in the “quite astounding” interview, Johnson had given a “startling insight” into his true political leanings and “the shameless way he is prepared to sell out native Londoners to pander to the Islamic vote.”

The BNP has also attacked the Mayor’s support for the idea of giving an amnesty to illegal immigrants, which is against the policy of his own Conservative party and of the Home Office. Johnson said that immigrants who have been in Britain for more than five years (he estimates there are 700,000 in the country, 400,000 of them in London), and who show a commitment to the country, should be allowed to stay.

One of the first things Johnson did after becoming mayor was to appoint a Muslim woman, Munira Mirza, as his director of arts, culture and creative industries policy. She had previously co-authored a report for the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange entitled “Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism”.

Policy Exchange, which has been described as David Cameron’s favourite think tank, has issued a number of reports critical of aspects of Islam and is regarded with suspicion by certain Muslims. One of the actions of Johnson most criticised by Muslims and others has been his appointment of Anthony Browne, former director of Policy Exchange, as his policy director.

Browne is a former journalist who has written articles against multiculturalism, immigration and the decline of “Britishness”.  In a cover story for the Spectator of 24 July 2004 entitled “Triumph of the East”, Browne argued that “Islam really does want to conquer the world”.

In the Muslim News interview with Johnson, the newspaper’s editor Ahmed J Versi , raised the issue of Browne’s negative remarks about Islam in articles in the Spectator. Johnson said “I understand completely people’s concerns” but added that one should “distinguish between the kind of slightly careless polemical things people may say in their journalistic capacity which can be used against them. You have to distinguish between that and what they really want to do in London.”  Johnson could just as well have been speaking about himself, and certain things that he has written in the past.

[Published in Arabic in Al-Hayat daily, Beirut on 3 January 2009]

 

 

 

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